Have a song stuck in your head? Here’s how to get rid of it.

By Seriously Science | March 3, 2014 6:00 am
Photo: flickr/jonny goldstein

Photo: flickr/jonny goldstein

We’ve all experienced it: the dreaded “earworm,” in which a song keeps playing in your head long after you’ve heard it on the radio. The causes of this phenomenon are still unclear, although studies suggest that random events, sounds, and thoughts may be to blame, and it might happen more often when we are thinking too much or too little. But more important is knowing how how to get rid of this “involuntary musical imagery”–especially when you’re already sick of hearing “Royals” on the radio, much less in your head. In this study, researchers surveyed a group of British subjects about how they get rid of earworms. The most common approaches were either exposure therapy — that is, listening to the song in question — or distraction. Interestingly, listening to a “cure tune” was a common approach, and the same cure tunes were actually reported by multiple people in the study. The top song? “God Save the Queen”, followed by “Karma Chameleon”, “Happy Birthday”, “Theme to the A-Team”, “Kashmir”, and “Sledgehammer.” But how did they get “Karma Chameleon” out of their head?

Sticky Tunes: How Do People React to Involuntary Musical Imagery?

“The vast majority of people experience involuntary musical imagery (INMI) or ‘earworms’; perceptions of spontaneous, repetitive musical sound in the absence of an external source. The majority of INMI episodes are not bothersome, while some cause disruption ranging from distraction to anxiety and distress. To date, little is known about how the majority of people react to INMI, in particular whether evaluation of the experience impacts on chosen response behaviours or if attempts at controlling INMI are successful or not. The present study classified 1046 reports of how people react to INMI episodes. Two laboratories in Finland and the UK conducted an identical qualitative analysis protocol on reports of INMI reactions and derived visual descriptive models of the outcomes using grounded theory techniques. Combined analysis carried out across the two studies confirmed that many INMI episodes were considered neutral or pleasant, with passive acceptance and enjoyment being among the most popular response behaviours. A significant number of people, however, reported on attempts to cope with unwanted INMI. The most popular and effective behaviours in response to INMI were seeking out the tune in question, and musical or verbal distraction. The outcomes of this study contribute to our understanding of the aetiology of INMI, in particular within the framework of memory theory, and present testable hypotheses for future research on successful INMI coping strategies.”

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  • Andrew Cordani

    A trick suggested to me was singing The Mexican Hat Dance. It’s a little
    like the ultimate Earworm, and it overrides all others… be such a
    toxic earworm, the brain naturally eradicates it over a short time.

  • C B

    Someone want to translate the solution to English?

  • Kimberly Schwier

    the only way i know of to get rid of it, for me, is to hear the “earworm” again… or be careful that when the last song you hear on the way to work you actually hear the end of the song… that works for me too

  • Wayne101

    “The outcomes of this study contribute to our understanding of the
    aetiology of INMO . . . [and] hypotheses for future research on successful INMI coping strategies.”

    Translate: “We got nothin'”

  • teapartydoc

    The Cat in the Hat Comes back.

  • badJim

    One solution I’ve seen suggested is to invoke the final “By Mennen”, which is only useful for those old enough to remember the commercial.

    My trick is to bring to mind Schubert’s Quartettsatz, which has a few memorable themes but is too complicated to be an earworm itself.

  • Don’t Even Try It!

    Go watch a racing event without ear protection! You won’t hear the tune (ever) again 😉 Just trying to help (-_-)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

    alright, so how do you get the damn song out of your head???????
    a despicably stupid article…….

  • bob

    Wash your hands with soap and sing it out loud – it doesn’t always work, but it does sometimes, often to my surprise.

  • Mac Guy3135

    The first song in the album I diddent want songs of ngratfulness by U2 is the king of ear worms the opening overrides anything I can through at it really loudly

  • Andrew Lin

    My trick is to pretend the music gets staticy and goes away. Nobody gets static earworm.

  • First Officer

    All I do is sing a different tune. Then I put on a happy face! :)

  • leslie pajar

    hello chronic earworm suffer i have tunes day and night can’t sleep going to head doctor becoming a mad woman these days help.

  • Tomas Zebulnski

    I had the problem for 30 years until I discovered the Indian health system Ayurveda. I had music and tinnitus almost constantly until I took a large dose of Valerian. The noise stopped. Why? Because according to Ayurveda my body was ibalanced, what they call “Vata”. Dry skin, cracked nails, insomnia are all signs of deranged Vata. Anyway, now the music has stopped! Another herb which balances Vata is Ashwagandha.
    Works for me anyway. What a relief!
    Western medicine will never find an answer since they are looking in the wrong places.

    • Christian Valencia

      I have this condition and it’s wrecking my life. I would do almost anything to make the music go away. ¿Could you provide some more information about your treatment? I long to be myself again. ¿How can I contact you?

      • Tomas Zebulnski

        What I did was to consult Ayurveda. I cannot tell what is your body type, but I found that when the music is playing, my “Vata” was imbalanced. What initially worked for me was to take Valerian tincture. However, that may not work for everyone as our body types are quite complex. Rather than to rush out and get Valerian, I suggest that you do a little research. Do a search on “How to balance vata dosha”. Also look for an online test about how to determine what is your dosha. Ayurveda is about 5000 years old and using the guidelines they lay out for your particular dosha (body type) can help you to stay in balance. Unfortunately for us vata types, there are MANY things which imbalance vata. In my case it was alcohol use and stress.
        Let me know how it goes. Good luck!

        • Christian Valencia

          I’m still going through some standard medical evaluations but I do plan on getting checked by an Ayurveda practitioner. I wanted to ask you, ¿how long did your treatment last? ¿And how many sessions did it involve? Thanks again.

          • Tomas Zebulnski

            Why are you going through “standard medical evaluations”? All they do is to suppress symptoms with $ drugs. The root cause is only addressed by holistic systems (Ayurveda and TCM). As for me, I honestly cannot say how long, because it occurred in the ’90’s. It was not “treatment” but lifestyle adjustments. Coincidentally, the music playing happened to me just the other day. Why? Because I am under severe stress of selling property and moving to another country. Rather than to see it as a curse, I simply saw it as a warning, and began to take herbs to reduce Vata (Ashwagandha, Shatavari, and Vidari) and bingo, the music stopped. So you see, it’s not a “disease” but a warning that something is out of adjustment. Western medicine is about “fighting” something and using drastic measures to deal with imbalances, while the Eastern way is to recognize what is askew, and help it to return to balance…much more gentle and it works. As I mentioned earlier, you need to assess your whole life and determine how to treat the body to bring it back into balance. Most Westerners are looking for something simple which will not require them to assess their habits and make changes. The choice is yours. I wish you success with this.

          • Christian Valencia

            Hi. Long time.

            My condition has apparently broadened from the last week. I developed tinnitus as well, a high pitched erratic hiss inside my head.

            I wanted to ask you, ¿was your tinnitus and the music related? ¿did the ayurveda treatment also help with the tinnitus?

            I have already started my treatment, but it was only supossed to address the music in my head. With this new thing going on, I don’t know what to do. It’s even more unsettling and demanding than the music.

            Thanks again for your help.

          • Tomas Zebulnski

            Yes tinnitus is usually part of the picture of what Ayurveda calls deranged Vata. I recently underwent a lot of stress and then did long distance travel, both of which upset Vata. The result was tinnitus and music. Both have been banished again by applying principles of Ayurveda. What treatment are you undergoing? The same Ayurvedic treatments can address both tinnitus and the music. Understand that I am not talking about some magic “cure” which will last forever. Ayurveda is about achieving and then maintaining BALANCE, which means you HAVE to adjust your lifestyle. Tinnitus can come and go. The thing is NOT to get upset about it, as that will further upset the picture. Instead, find space for relaxation and apply Ayurvedic principles to restore balance. You need to do some studying on the internet about how to manage Vata. It would be helpful to find out what is your Ayurvedic constitution, either from a practitioner or an online test. Good luck

          • Christian Valencia

            Well, my practitioner instructed me to look for recipes to balance vata and pitta, so I’m assuming they define my constitution? He said there was a lot of dryness and cold in my body, so that’s probably right.

          • Tomas Zebulnski

            Yes, both dryness and cold will upset Vata. Vata wants warmth, moisture, nourishing. Stay away from things which push vata like cold winds, caffeine (and any other stimulants), stressful lifestyle, etc. Look on the internet about how to balance vata. I will not be checking in here often as I am going to a silent retreat soon for several months. You need to balance both vata and pitta, but the tinnitus and music are realted to vata. Good luck.

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