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Timeline: Earworms

What can you do when you find yourself plagued by an incessant earworm?

Have you ever had a song that you just couldn’t get out of your head? You’re not alone. 98% of people have reportedly experienced this phenomenon. Scientists call it "Involuntary Musical Imagery" but the more catchy title is "earworm."


“Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”

Those “jingling rhymes” come from Mark Twain’s short story “A Literary Nightmare” published in 1876. Twain warned the reader to avoid this hypnotic verse “as you would a pestilence” else the rhymes will never leave and you’ll be driven insane.

I was quite surprised to discover that there’s been a lot of research into this “stuck song syndrome.” The British Journal of Psychology reported that most earworms are short sections of larger works, 15-20 seconds at the most. Dr. Earworm, James Kellaris at the University of Cincinnati, noted that the vast majority of these catchy tunes are accompanied by lyrics, vocals songs. James also noted that though women and men experience earworms equally, women report that they last longer and annoy them more. Researcher Vicky Williamson at Goldsmiths, University of London, found that while most earworms are the result of musical stimulus, hearing the song, sometimes they’re triggered by something else; perhaps a word, an emotion or a memory.

So what can you do when you’re plagued by an incessant earworm? Scientists at Weston Washington University say the answer might be as simple as solving a puzzle, perhaps a Sudoku. Though the scientists found that five-letter anagrams gave the best results. It has to be just enough challenge to push the melody out of your short-term or “working” memory. A 2015 research project from the University of Reading suggested that chewing gum could be enough to stop the stuck song. Still other research maintains that if an earworm is usually just a portion of a larger work, then listening to the entire song or piece might solve the issue.

Why? Why do earworms exist? What makes some music stick while other music doesn’t? To be honest, we don’t know. But science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke had an idea. In the 1957 short story titled “The Ultimate Melody”, Clarke tells the tale of doomed scientist, Gilbert Lister. In the story Gilbert builds a composing computer called Ludwig programmed to find the perfect melody, music that rings in exact harmony with the wave patterns of the human mind. Gilbert believed that all earworms “stick” because they resonate with human thought and brain waves. The computer, Ludwig, finds this ultimate melody and the result of listening to this music shuts down Gilbert Lister’s brain completely. He’s found in a catatonic state, unable to function because his mind has been invaded by this perfect song. The narrator questions whether Gilbert should be pitied or envied.

Hopefully we’ll never experience an earworm that completely captives us, like Gilbert Lister did, but we want to know what songs or pieces of music do find stick in your brain? Leave a comment below and tell us, what is your current earworm?

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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