Earworm Definition and Possible Cures


So you have this melody going around and around in your head and there seems to be nothing that can be done about it. You've tried taking headache pills, going to bed early, putting cotton wool in each ear and various other so-called remedies, none of which work. So what do you do? Well, firstly, we need to diagnose this seemingly insoluble problem.


This minor ailment is commonly known as IMI or earworm and, believe it or not affects thousands of people, regardless of race, creed or color. You are in the majority, especially if you listen to music, as most people do. The short version of the earworm definition, according to Wikipedia, is: "Sticky music, stuck song syndrome, or Involuntary Musical Imagery (IMI), is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person's mind after it is no longer playing." Sound familiar? At one time or another, almost all of us have suffered or are suffering from this annoying, yet surprisingly common condition.


My Ear Has Worms

As unattractive as that sounds, it does describe not only the physical aspect, but the kind of uncomfortable feeling that it is out of your control - as if another entity is doing this inside your head. As a professional musician and educator, I am naturally more prone to this than most other people for obvious reasons. As far back as I can remember, I have suffered from IMI, as I have always had to learn and memorize music in various forms. Not only that, but I have been exposed to every kind of music imaginable over the years, and so my IMI can range from a piece of classical music to an old pop song.



As an example, there is a classical composer called Gustav Mahler, whose music I came to know extremely well, due to the fact that, many years ago, I wrote a thesis on his first four symphonies. The first movement of his symphony number four has stayed with me from back in the '60s to this very day. I often find myself singing it in the shower, while I am lying in bed or when I'm driving - and it won't go away. I have accepted and will live with this unsavoury situation but am ever hopeful of a cure.... someday.


The other example of my particular and peculiar range of IMI symptoms, includes an old Burt Bacharach song, "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head". This is indeed a mystery, as I cannot think of any connection with this song, other than watching the movie 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'. But I have watched many famous movies in the past that have contained well-known songs and themes with no negative consequences whatsoever. A head scratcher I must admit.


Medical Thoughts

There have been studies on this phenomenon but not that many suggestions as to how to rid oneself of it. I suppose that the medical profession thinks that as you are not in pain and it isn't life threatening, it can be relegated to the "whenever we get to it" category. Vicky Williamson at Goldsmiths, University of London, found in an uncontrolled study that earworms correlated with music exposure, but could also be triggered by experiences from the memory of a song, such as seeing a word that reminds you of the song, hearing a few notes from the song, or feeling an emotion you associate with the song. The list of songs collected in the study showed no particular pattern, other than popularity.



According to research by James Kellaris, 98% of individuals experience earworms. Both men and women experience this problem equally often, but apparently, IMI tends to last longer for women and irritate them more. Kellaris produced statistics suggesting that songs with lyrics may account for 73.7% of IMI, whereas instrumental music may cause only 7.7%. Okay, but it leaves you wondering what accounts for the other 18.6%! The British Journal of Psychology, in 2010, directly addressed the subject of IMI, and its results support earlier claims that the musical melodies or phrases are usually fifteen to thirty seconds in length, and are more common in those with musical connections.


Possible Cures?

As I already said, my own IMI is a condition that I have accepted calmly, and whenever I start to repeat a melody multiple times in my head, I work hard to distract myself with other songs or just other thoughts. This does work up to a point, and sometimes I can successfully return to merciful slumber or whatever else I am trying to accomplish. Sadly, it is not a permanent cure.


Scientists at Western Washington University discovered that trying to engage your working memory in moderately difficult tasks such as doing anagrams, Sudoku puzzles, or reading a book, was an effective way of stopping IMI in its tracks, and of reducing the chance of their recurring. Another study reveals that music has a tendency to demonstrate repeating rhythm as well as the melody, which may lead to endless repetition, unless a climax can be achieved to break the cycle. So try making one up if the original does not have one.



The University of Reading School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences says chew some gum. Psychologist Philip Beaman and his team found that college students were exposed to part of a catchy song and subsequently chewed gum. They reported fewer earworms than those who did not chew. The act of chewing gum, as with silently reading, talking or singing to yourself, uses the tongue, teeth and other parts of the anatomy used to produce speech, called sub vocal articulators. These acts could lessen the brain's ability to form verbal or musical memories. For some people, gum chewing might just be enough to head off continuous replays of 'Hello Dolly' or any other repetitive and annoying melody.


Read All About It


IMI does has officially been acknowledged by the world of literature. Mark Twain's 1876 story "A Literary Nightmare" is about a jingle that you can get rid of only by transferring it to another person. In 1943 Henry Kuttner published the short story "Nothing but Gingerbread Left" about a song that was specially composed to damage the Nazi war effort, culminating in Adolf Hitler being unable to continue a speech. In Alfred Bester's 1953 novel The Demolished Man, the main character uses a jingle specifically crafted to be a catchy, irritating nuisance as a tool to block mind readers from reading his mind.


In Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 science fiction short story "The Ultimate Melody", a scientist, Gilbert Lister, develops the ultimate melody – one that so compels the brain that its listener becomes completely and forever enraptured by it. As the storyteller, Harry Purvis, explains, Lister theorized that a great melody "made its impression on the mind because it fitted in with the fundamental electrical rhythms going on in the brain." Lister attempts to abstract from the hit songs of the day to a melody that fits in so well with the electrical rhythms, that it dominates them completely. He succeeds and is found in a catatonic state from which he never awakens.

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