Why is that song stuck in your head?


Ever had a song repeatedly play on and on in your head?


It can creep up on you when you’re brushing your teeth, sitting through a boring class or just waiting in line to get to the dentist and suddenly Justin Bieber is singing Despacito on a loop in your head.

Not the whole song- just a part of it, whatever you do, wherever you go, it just doesn’t seem to leave you alone.

This is an earworm.

It’s not a real worm, and is also known as a brainworm, sticky music, or stuck song syndrome!

Why is it happening to me?

Music triggers a part of our brain called the Auditory Cortex. The auditory cortex stores auditory memory. Auditory memory helps you make an auditory image of a sound. Like how you can imagine the sound of a bee buzzing.

Earworms are a special type of auditory imagery, because they are involuntary. They creep up on your mind and repeat themselves in a loop at their own will.

Here’s how it works


    Our brains have a tendency to recall memories, when we experience something similar to our stored memories. Say, a song you know plays near you, the auditory cortex in the brain will instantly begin to predict the rest of the song. If the song is repeated enough, it can become an earworm.

 The brain views actions as “tasks”. If a “task” is repeated enough by a person, the brain goes on autopilot mode and takes the responsibility to “complete” the task. Like when you begin to tie your shoelaces, the brain goes on automatic mode and only stops when you finish the task at hand- tying your shoelaces. This is also the reason why you don’t need to put any special effort into remembering how to tie your shoelaces- your brain does it for you.

Music is made in a forward progression so when a song we know plays, our brains go into an automatic prediction mode. Once a tune is suggested by a trigger, the brain plays it by itself, and keeps repeating it on loop, because for some reason it thinks the tune is an unfinished “task”.

So what triggers an earworm?


Various things can cause an earworm. Songs tend to get stuck in your head when you listen to them repeatedly, like a jingle for a TV commercial ( washing powder Nirma, anyone?), or a pop song. But repetition isn’t the only trigger. A memory, a particular emotion, even dreams can trigger the auditory cortex.

How can you get rid of an annoying earworm?

To break out of an earworm, you need to offer your brain a distraction. Listening to a different song dislodges the brain’s intention to finish it’s older “task” or even forget it. So does doing another task- like chewing gum or solving a puzzle, i.e, any activity that interferes with voluntary processes like recollection of ambiguous auditory images and scanning of familiar melodies helps.