What do you do about earworms, since they’re so common?

radio image Indie Art South

Sometimes after listening to the band practice, I’ll get a song I like stuck in my head. They are many. “Tin Man” by Miranda Lambert. Lead Belly’s “In the Pines.” Closer to home, the Daysies’ “Stick a Lime in It.” I recently learned there’s a label for songs that get stuck in your head. 


I also sometimes get earworms I don’t like. Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” That mind-numbing tune “Tomorrow” from Annie.

Scientists have actually studied this phenomenon. Part of the reason songs get stuck in your head has to do with the format. “Western pop music” is a primary culprit, according to an analysis of research posted by legacy network CBS News. The analysis noted:

“Our findings show that you can to some extent predict which songs are going to get stuck in people’s heads based on the song’s melodic content,” Jakubowski said in a statement. “These musically sticky songs seem to have quite a fast tempo along with a common melodic shape and unusual intervals or repetitions like we can hear in the opening riff of ‘Smoke On The Water’ by Deep Purple or in the chorus of ‘Bad Romance.’”

The monotony, empty lyrics, and uniformity of pop caused me to rarely listen to pop.

Once a song gets stuck in my head, I learned long ago to get busy with work or listen to iconic tunes to shove the earworm out. Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby” or Clapton’s “Layla” or Creed’s remarkable “My Sacrifice” turned up at full volume does the trick for me.

Research suggests that’s a good way to nix the earworm.

On the other hand, it strikes me that earworms can be a boon to the performer. Talk about branding—your music is living in someone else’s head. You can’t do much better than that.

One publication suggested phoning a friend or singing to get the earworm to go away.

The CBS analysis also suggested neurotic types are more likely to be troubled by this phenomenon, but I guess that depends on your perspective on being troubled. A song sticking in your head can indeed be annoying, but it’s a small problem most of us are capable of solving without dramatic steps.

An article at BBC pointed to exposure and repeat plays as reasons for earworms. I remember years ago that “Achy Breaky Heart” song popping up on the radio every time I was in the car. Talk about overexposure. To this day, I can’t abide that song.

Songs sticking in your head can be annoying, it’s true. But they can also be comforting. I’ve had to sit through long boring presentations, courtesy of doing some speaking engagements and book events. I remember a woman years ago who was on this poetry program with us. She was very academic. Personally, I found her poems about as engaging as a stick in the mud. So while she read, I spun songs in my head. I remember playing The (amazing, incomparable, stupendous) Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do” in my head as the professor-poet read a poem that in my book she should’ve let bake for a very long time before presenting it in public. I feel the same way about some of my own work, by the way.

Most anyone who listens to a lot of music suffers the occasional earworm. Good thing is it’s easily remedied.

Should a songwriter take earworms into consideration when composing a work? I don’t know. I do know that now I’ve written this column, I will have earworms bouncing around for awhile today. I’ll keep Joplin handy.

(Kay B. Day/April 24, 2018)

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