Infectious Earworms: Dealing with Musical Maladies

earworm - record playing This menace may leap out at you in the subway or find you when you’re tucked away, safe in your bed; it might follow you when you’re driving down the street or running at the gym. Hand sanitizer can’t protect you, and once you’re afflicted, the road to recovery can be a long one. However, this isn’t the Bubonic plague or the common cold—instead, the dreaded earworms!

Derived from the German word ohrwurm, which translates literally to “ear-worm,” an earworm commonly refers to a song, or a snippet of a song, that gets stuck in your head. Earworms can occur spontaneously and play in our heads in a seemingly infinite loop. Think of relentlessly catchy tunes, such as “Who Let the Dogs Out?,” “It’s a Small World,” or any Top 40 staple. An estimated 90% of people fall prey to an earworm at least once a week and most are not bothersome, but some can cause distress or anxiety. And yet, despite the earworm’s ubiquity, very little is known about how we react to this phenomenon. With the assistance of BBC 6 Music, the authors of a recent PLOS ONE study set out to connect the dots between how we feel about and deal with these musical maladies.

Researchers drew upon the results of two existing surveys, each focusing on different aspects of our feelings about earworms. In the first, participants were asked to reflect on whether they felt positively or negatively toward earworms, and whether these feelings affected how they responded to them. The second survey focused on how effective participants felt they were in dealing with songs stuck in their heads. Responses to both surveys were given free form.

To make sense of the variety of data each survey provided, the authors coded participant responses and identified key patterns, or themes. Two researchers developed their own codes and themes, compared notes and developed a list, as represented below.

earworm - Finnish study

Survey responses. Participants either chose to “cope” with their earworms or “let it be.”

The figure above represents responses from the first survey, in which participants assigned a negative or positive value to their earworm experiences and described how they engaged with the tune. The majority didn’t enjoy earworms and assigned a negative value to the experience. These responses were clustered by a common theme, which the researchers labelled “Cope,” and were associated with various attempts to get rid of the internal music. A significant number of participants reported using other music to combat their earworms.

Participants in the second survey, which focused on the efficacy of treating earworms, responded in a number of different ways. Those whose way of dealing was effective often fell into one of two themes: “Engage” or “Distract.” Those that engaged with their earworms did so by, for example, replaying the song; those that wanted distraction often utilized other songs. Most opted to engage.

Ultimately, the researchers concluded that our relationships with these musical maladies can be rather complex. Yet, whether you embrace these catchy tunes or try to tune them out, the way we feel about earworms is often connected to how we deal with them.

Want to put in your two cents? You can tell the authors how you deal with earworms at their website, Earwormery. For more on this musical phenomenon, listen to personal anecdotes on Radiolab, read about earworm anatomy at The New Yorker, or dig deeper in the study.

 

Citation: Williamson VJ, Liikkanen LA, Jakubowski K, Stewart L (2014) Sticky Tunes: How Do People React to Involuntary Musical Imagery? PLoS ONE 9(1): e86170. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0086170

 

Images: Record playing by Kenny Louie

Figure 1 from the paper.

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