The Wrong Song Long In Your Head

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Unexpected and insidious, the earworm slinks its way into the brain and refuses to leave. Symptoms vary, although high levels of annoyance and frustration are common. There are numerous potential treatments, but no cure.

"Earworm" is the term coined by University of Cincinnati marketing professor James Kellaris for the usually unwelcome songs that get stuck in people's heads. Since beginning his research in 2000, Kellaris has heard from people all over the world requesting help, sharing anecdotes and offering solutions.

"I quickly learned that virtually everybody experiences earworms at one time or another," he said. "I think because it's experienced privately and not often a topic of conversation, maybe people really long for some social comparison. They want to know if other people experience what they experience."

Kellaris, whose most pervasive personal earworm (Byzantine chants) likely has something to do with his wife's job as a church choir director, has been interested in the topic of earworms for decades. As a musician who now studies how marketers reach the public, he began wondering how widespread stuck songs really are, and began doing small surveys in 2000.

Last year, he surveyed about 500 students, faculty and staff on the Cincinnati campus asking about the type, frequency and duration of earworms, and possible causes and cures. Among the songs respondents picked as most likely to become stuck were: "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the Chili's restaurant "baby back ribs" jingle and "Who Let the Dogs Out."

But the choice that topped the so-called "playlist from hell" was "Other," meaning the majority of those surveyed chose a unique song of their own as the most probable earworm. That led Kellaris to conclude that stuck songs are highly idiosyncratic.

"There are certain tunes that we would describe as catchy that are more likely to become one, but just about anything can become an earworm," he said.

The study, presented at conferences of the Society for Consumer Psychology in 2001 and 2003, showed:
  • Women report more irritation and frustration as a result of earworms.

  • People who are constantly exposed to music suffer them more frequently.

  • There may be a connection between earworms and a person's level of neurosis.
"People with higher neuroticism scores tend to react to the onset of an earworm by saying 'Oh no, here it goes again, I wonder how long this is going to last,'" Kellaris said. "That fretting about it, I think, exacerbates it."

The atmosphere is ripe for earworms at Last Vestige, a music store just west of downtown Albany. As customers flipped through compact discs and records with markers displaying such subjects as "Elvis the Pelvis" and "Beatles Cash-in Copycats," employees Jim Kaufman and Charles Monroe ruminated on recent bouts with earworms.

"Top 40 pop, usually — stuff you wouldn't catch yourself listening to at home," said Kaufman, who named Jennifer Lopez's "Jenny From the Block" as a past stuck song. "Or stuff you're ashamed to admit listening to at home."

Both men said they get rid of earworms either by trying to ignore them or by playing a tune they enjoy. Monroe said an earworm "usually happens when I only hear the song for like a second, like if I go to the laundromat and I'm kind of in and out."

Kellaris heard similar stories after news of his study reached the public. He got hundreds of e-mails from the Philippines, South Africa, Norway, the United Kingdom, Germany, Argentina and all over North America. Among the messages:
  • A company that provided background music for retail stores wanted to know how to avoid using music prone to becoming an earworm.

  • Sufferers of a psychiatric condition where patients hear music when none is playing sent queries and case histories hoping Kellaris had found a way to cure or treat the disorder. The professor said the two are unrelated.

  • Personal stories about earworms haunting individuals for weeks, months or years.

  • Suggestions of how to cure an earworm, including chewing on a cinnamon stick, passing the earworm on to someone else or erasing the offending song by singing the theme from "Gilligan's Island."
For marketers, earworms can be a "double-edged sword," helpful if consumers look upon a memorable jingle favorably but with the potential to breed negativity toward a brand if the stuck song is viewed as annoying or unwelcome, said Larry Compeau, a marketing professor at Clarkson University and executive officer of the Society for Consumer Psychology.

"The trick with earworms or with any kind of piece of music in advertising is to make sure the music is going to trigger the kinds of emotions or feelings you want the consumer to experience," he said.

Studying when earworms are most likely to occur is next up for Kellaris.

One theory is that stuck songs are "the brain's attempt to resolve missing information," he said, so that retrieving the forgotten lyrics of a song will provide closure that "unsticks" an earworm.

By Rachel Kipp
  • Lloyd Vries

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