What can you do about a bad case of earworm?

Ever had a bad case of worms? No, not those worms that give you an itchy bottom, something far more serious – earworms!

For those not familiar with the term, an earworm is a song – or more often, part of a song – that gets stuck ‘on repeat’ in your head. Rather than wriggling around ‘down there’, an earworm wriggles around inside your brain.

An earworm can be the most annoying of things, even if the song running around inside your head is one you like. In such cases, a song you initially love can quickly become one you never want to hear again. When it comes to music, you probably can have too much of a good thing.

When your earworm is a song you hate

Of course, a far worse scenario is when the song that keeps repeating is one that you hated in the first place. Are there any that spring to mind for you? I have one that’s haunted me for more than 40 years.

Those of you from my generation (I’m closing on 60) will probably remember the band, Boney M. The German-Caribbean vocal group had a huge hit in Australia in 1978 with the song Rivers of Babylon, and the follow-up single Rasputin was also a chart-topper.

I neither loved nor hated Rivers of Babylon but didn’t mind Rasputin at all. But Boney M lost me completely a year later with the release of a song called Hooray! Hooray! It’s a Holi-holiday.

The song’s title lyrics kick off a sickeningly sweet (in my opinion) chorus that calls to mind bad nursery rhymes. From the moment 14-year-old me heard it, I hated it. But, probably because of its simple nursery rhyme type of structure, that chorus also became instantly unforgettable.

And, boy, did my brain hammer that point home. I found myself not only recalling that god-awful earworm but occasionally singing it out loud!

My brain could have thrown up other hits of the time that I really liked. Other songs in the charts back then included Cool For Cats by UK Squeeze, I Was Made for Loving You by Kiss and Paul McCartney and Wings’ Goodnight Tonight.

Three songs I absolutely loved at the time, but what did my brain keep throwing up at me? That dreaded Boney M song. (You can find that song via this link, but you do so at your own risk!)

The science behind earworms

How and why a song might become lodged in your consciousness has been the subject of conjecture for many years. A definitive answer to the question has been elusive, but a newly published study has identified a potentially key component – repetition.

Past theories have cited a particular ‘hook’ – a short, catchy sequence of notes – within the song as the culprit. But Professor Emery Schubert, author of the new study, suggests repetition may play a bigger role.

“What hasn’t been considered is that the hook is invariably repeated in the music, most commonly in the chorus,” says Prof. Schubert.

His study identifies earworms as a subset of a phenomenon known as ‘involuntary musical imagery’ (INMI). The study tested the hypothesis that repetition plays a greater role than the musical sequence in songs becoming earworms. The evidence suggests that it may.

“The implication is that earworms might not have anything to do with the musical features at all,” he said. It largely doesn’t matter what the music is, as long as repetition is part of the music structure.”

Prof. Schubert acknowledges that the results are not conclusive and that there are “still several puzzles that INMI research needs to address”.

One can only hope that those doing the research aren’t plagued by an earworm themselves as they do that research. Or if they are, one that doesn’t annoy them as much as that wretched Boney M song annoys me.

Also read: Do you have misophonia?

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigaczhttps://www.patreon.com/AndrewGigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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