Earworms: Those songs that get stuck in your head – Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis

Earworms: Those songs that get stuck in your head – Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis


Have you ever been waiting in line
at the grocery store, innocently perusing the magazine rack,
when a song pops into your head? Not the whole song, but a fragment of it
that plays and replays until you find yourself unloading
the vegetables in time to the beat. You’ve been struck by an earworm,
and you’re not alone. Over 90% of people are plagued
by earworms at least once a week, and about a quarter of people
experience them several times a day. They tend to burrow in during tasks
that don’t require much attention, say, when waiting on water to boil or a traffic light to change. This phenomenon is one
of the mind’s great mysteries. Scientists don’t know
exactly why it’s so easy for tunes to get stuck in our heads. From a psychological perspective, earworms are an example of mental imagery. This imagery can be visual, like when you close your eyes
and imagine a red wagon, or it can be auditory, like when you imagine
the sound of a baby screaming, or oil sizzling in a pan. Earworms are a special form
of auditory imagery because they’re involuntary. You don’t plug your ears
and try to imagine “Who Let the Dogs Out,” or, well, you probably don’t. It just intrudes onto
your mental soundscape and hangs around
like an unwanted house guest. Earworms tend to be quite vivid and they’re normally made up of a tune,
rather than, say, harmonies. A remarkable feature of earworms
is their tendency to get stuck in a loop, repeating again and again
for minutes or hours. Also remarkable is the role
of repetition in sparking earworms. Songs tend to get stuck when
we listen to them recently and repeatedly. If repetition is such a trigger, then perhaps we can blame our earworms
on modern technology. The last hundred years have seen
an incredible proliferation of devices that help you listen
to the same thing again and again. Records, cassettes, CDs,
or streamed audio files. Have these technologies bread some
kind of unique, contemporary experience, and are earworms just a product
of the late 20th century? The answer comes from an unlikely source: Mark Twain. In 1876, just one year
before the phonograph was invented, he wrote a short story
imagining a sinister takeover of an entire town by a rhyming jingle. This reference, and others, show us that earworms seem
to be a basic psychological phenomenon, perhaps exacerbated
by recording technology but not new to this century. So yes, every great historical figure,
from Shakespeare to Sacajawea, may well have wandered around
with a song stuck in their head. Besides music, it’s hard to think
of another case of intrusive imagery that’s so widespread. Why music? Why don’t watercolors
get stuck in our heads? Or the taste of cheesy taquitos? One theory has to do with the way music
is represented in memory. When we listen to a song we know, we’re constantly hearing forward in time,
anticipating the next note. It’s hard for us to think about one
particular musical moment in isolation. If we want to think about the pitch
of the word “you” in “Happy Birthday,” we have to start back at “Happy,” and sing through until we get to “you.” In this way, a tune
is sort of like a habit. Just like once you start tying your shoe, you’re on automatic
until you tighten the bow, once a tune is suggested because, for example, someone says,
“my umbrella,” we have to play through until it
reaches a natural stopping point, “ella, ella, ella.” But this is largely speculation. The basic fact remains we don’t know
exactly why we’re susceptible to earworms. But understanding them better
could give us important clues to the workings of the human brain. Maybe the next time we’re plagued by a Taylor Swift tune
that just won’t go away, we’ll use it as the starting point
for a scientific odyssey that will unlock important mysteries
about basic cognition. And if not, well,
we can just shake it off.

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100 Comments

  1. 4:00

    UNDER MY UMBRELLA, ELLA, ELLA,
    EY, EY, EY
    UNDER MY UMBRELLA, ELLA, ELLA
    ARGHHHH NOOOOOOO NOT AGAIN

  2. One theory sais that earworms get stuck in our head because we need to have it finished. I believe this is mildly suggested in this video.

  3. Who has those things where to faces of people become merged together, or you can't think of the original person's face without seeing the other one's?

  4. state of my brain before watching this video: okay

    state of my brain after watching this video: WHO LET DA DOGS WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF

  5. ‘You tend to hear them in tasks that require much attention’
    How is it then that school and exams are the most time this happens to me

  6. I was unfortunate enough to have a Frank Sinatra song playing in my head while my most important final was in play. I got 92.3% out of 100% in my report card… I hate myself (Asians amirite)

  7. 🎵Don’t be afraid to catch feels don’t be afraid to catch feels don’t be afraid to catch feels🎵 like honestly get out of my head

  8. Do you imagine how stress when you are in math exam ?

    Yeah you said it extremely stress right
    I have song that stock in my head in math exam 🥺🥺🥺🥺😭😭😭

  9. i usually just play the whole song in my head when i am at somewhere quiet and bored, like a lecture or event to entertain myself, the song doesn't get stuck in my head unless i want it to.

  10. The first time i had an earworm i was a kid , so i started crying because i thought i was doomed to hear the song for the rest of my life.

  11. Nobody:
    TedEd: you're probably not thinking who let the dogs out
    Me with my macho voice: WHO WHO WHO WHO

  12. Weird, I have been having Taylor Swift's Shak It Off in my head in my head for three weeks except that my mind made up a language for it since I don't know the actual lyrics.

  13. trying to stop this is futile-
    𝘴𝘰 𝘫𝘶𝘴𝘵 𝘭𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘦𝘯 𝘢𝘨𝘢𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘰 𝘮𝘺 𝘮𝘶𝘴𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘥𝘰𝘰𝘥𝘭𝘦

  14. Its so funny that the song in use in this video struck in my head for almost 2 days. 😁😂😂😂

  15. I clicked because this reminds me of that episode of Spongebob were he gets a worm in his head when he listened to a song

  16. I love your videos and this one caught me by surprise. I've always been curious why I'm so susceptible to catchy songs and beats, more so than anyone I know. Honestly though, I think it's genetic.
    My mother told me how often songs get stuck in her head and my father was shocked when I was I started playing With or Without You by U2. He told me how he ruined 3 cassettes listening to that song. I came from two ear worm junkies and almost every song at one point or another has gotten stuck in my head. Idk if I hate it or love it but music is amazing. Chills from music is an experience everyone should get.

  17. For some odd reason I am trying to relax sometimes and suddenly the Dora the explorer theme song appears in my head.

  18. Damn it… the song from lego movie 2 called "this song's gonna get inside your head" was giving me months of endless loop inside my head idk why.. and now that i watched and saw the title its all now coming back

  19. when ever i sing some of my favorite songs i forget if i said one of the songs correctly like my mind went blank

  20. I constantly catch earworms when I am a little kid this day. The song that got stuck in my head for a quite long time was The Nice and Friendly Christmas March from Sheriff Callie’s Wild West. It got stuck inside my head ever since I was 12.

  21. I hate when its English class, when i heard a simple word like “If” i started singing “It will rain” – Bruno Mars

  22. Me: taking an exam
    Earworms: Let's play that song from a cartoon that we watched when you were 4 years old.
    Me in my mind: FFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUU

  23. I know how to get rid of earworm. Listen to the song that stuck in your head over and over again.
    I have a song stuck in my brain before but after listening to it for hours finally it's gone.

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