Why do songs get stuck in our heads?

If a song gets stuck in your head, how can you get it out?

First, remain calm. That Abba song can’t last all day. Can it?


If an undesirable song seems to persist in your mind, you have what’s called an Ohrwurm. That’s German for “ear worm.”  These worms can be insidious and frightening. Do not panic.

One of the most important properties of music is that we can listen to it over and over.  That’s not true of books or movies. Only an idiot will watch Titanic two hundred times – though it’s in no way unusual to listen to your favorite song hundreds if not thousands of times. This is because music releases neurochemicals like a drunken bartender. Dopamine and oxytocin and all sorts of opiates stimulate our pleasure centres. It’s something like having sex (which we would also like to think we can have over and over, but unfortunately – men, that’s you – can’t). Music, in fact, is involved in at least thirty different neural networks. It takes up more brain real estate than any other single human pursuit.


Ear worms are usually only parts of a song, a phrase or two which usually lasts between five and twenty seconds. That’s called the “perceptual present” – the window of time in which our consciousness is truly aware of something. In music, it usually corresponds to the hook of a song – often an eight or sixteen bar sequence.

Hooks, songwriters should note, consist of mostly familiar chord patterns and rhythms with one good surprise in there for the brain.  This has to do with the brain’s ancient evolutionary sense of anticipation: what we expect to hear and then a slight variation – a melody suddenly lifting up a whole fifth rather than the expected third.  The Beatle’s song Yesterday is a good example of this slight variation (and one of the greatest songs ever written).  The verse is actually a seven bar pattern – very unusual – though you would never know it unless you counted it out.  The brain knows it though and latches onto it like a life raft at sea.


Oliver Sacks, the eminent psychologist recommends (in his book musicophilia) that simply playing out the entire song in your head can get rid of an ear worm.  The worm, remember, is only a part of the song. The brain keeps looping back to the beginning of that bit.  It’s possible, he suggests, that imagining the song all the way through – as painful as that might be – neatly expunges it from our brains, leaving us free once again to contemplate the more weighty matters of our lives.

For more information on this phenomenon and others see:

Tripping the World Fantastic: a journey through the music of our planet.

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