Why does music get stuck in our heads? — Lauren Stewart / Serious Science
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Why does music get stuck in our heads? — Lauren Stewart / Serious Science


It’s actually a very difficult question
to answer even though we’re now at the end of several years of work where we’ve been
investigating tunes in the head. I would say quite honestly that we actually
still don’t know why music comes into our heads in this involuntary way. Some people think that this phenomenon is
becoming more common and that it’s because of us listening to more music these days. Music is so available on our phones, our music
is all around us in public places, so we hear a lot of music compared to, say, a hundred
years ago or something. We’ve encoded, and absorbed, and memorized
a lot of music and it may be that this is a simple reflection of the fact that we’ve
got a lot of music in our heads. You might say: well, we also listen to people
talking all the time but we don’t have earworms to speech, it seems to be a specific thing
to music. I would say that that it’s very likely to
have something to do with the repetition that’s inherent to music, so if you formally analyze
any musical tune or most musical tunes, the degree of repetition either in terms of individual
notes or individual intervals or even individual little patterns or contours they come up over
and over again. In terms of auditory objects in the environment,
there’s very few that I can think of that would be as repetitive as music and contain
so much repetitive structure. It may be this property of music that can
explain why it’s music that essentially can get stuck in our heads rather than another
form of auditory input. Of course, it’s not any bit of the music that
tends to come to mind, it’s a particular hook. These tend to be the most repetitive bits
or perhaps there’s a certain memorable quality to the tone of voice or a particular rhythmic
segment that’s very unusual. As I said before when we analyzed a set of
tunes that were commonly reported as earworms versus a control set of tunes that were matched
for chart success and popularity and sometimes the artists themselves. What we found was that the commonly reported
earworms were characterized by certain features that were a combination of predictability
but also something quirky as well. I can’t go into too much detail, it’s all
present in the paper, but essentially it seems to be like a ‘sweet spot’ that combines
something that’s very expected and we can anticipate but it’s not too banal, it’s got
some interesting feature that’s distinctive. In terms of questions that we haven’t addressed
yet one thing I’ve just been interested in knowing is whether or not earworms have a
function. Do they have a purpose that’s useful to us
or not? Or they just an epiphenomenon to the fact
that music is all around us and sometimes our memories of music essentially are triggered? There’s a couple of examples that I have come
across where people have reported that music has come to mind when they’re at this interesting
state of consciousness. For instance, Oliver Sacks talks about how
he once had a fall on a mountain in Norway. I think this is in his book ‘A leg to stand
on’. He talks about how he gets stranded on the
side of this mountain and he’s broken his leg, and the sun is going down, and there’s
nobody around to help him. And he thinks: wow, I really better get off
this mountain soon because otherwise, I’ll die. And he could feel himself slipping away out
of consciousness. And he said: at this point, music came to
me, and essentially he had this very vivid experience of musical imagery and he used
this music to provide a rhythmic impetus to essentially row himself down the mountain
on his bottom. He very nicely describes how the music that
he’d generated internally was a very strong force in driving his movement and allowing
him to get down the mountain. Equally, there’s the book ‘Touching the
void’ which is the story of climbers Joe Simpson and the other one whose name I forget
who have this horrific accident in climbing in the mountains. I think it’s Joe Simpson that said he had
this very-very persistent earworm of ‘Brown girl in the ring’ and he said: ‘I really
hate this tune and now I’m actually going to die to the sounds of Boney M’. What was interesting there is that they’re
both examples of extreme situations, almost life and death, where music seems to come
unbidden into the mind. Particularly in the case of Joe Simpson this
is not a song at all that he would have chosen to listen to. It’s an example of how little control he has
over this because if it was up to him he would have chosen a song that he liked or that he
was used to listening to. The fact that it was this song that he really
didn’t like is quite interesting and what it suggests to me is that perhaps there may
be a role for inner music in modulating our state of arousal and in that situation it
doesn’t matter if the tune is in keeping with your own personal tastes. What’s really probably important or one of
the things that’s likely to be important is whether the tempo of that song is in a suitable
range to boost your level of arousal. Regardless of whether you like it or whether
aesthetically it’s pleasing to you are these kind of basic properties of tempo, for instance,
going to be effective in modulating your arousal. It’s all rather speculative because it’s based
on these anecdotal accounts but I found it really interesting. There were these only two, I haven’t systematically
tried to collect any more, but it could be suggesting a role for inner music in modulating
mood and arousal which would mimic how we use actual music when we sit down and listen
to music in real life, where we strategically choose music to either match or to change
our state of arousal. So this is something that would be interesting
to know in the future.

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