Science News

Brain 'itch' Keeps Catchy Songs in Our Heads

Sun, 9th Nov 2003

Part of the show The Safety of Genetically Modified Plants

Don’t you just hate it when you get an annoying song stuck in your head and you can’t stop humming it all day? Researchers in America think this happens because these repetitive, catchy songs give us a brain itch, which can only be cured by a cognitive scratch… otherwise known as listening to the offending tune over and over again. Prof James Kellaris from the University of Cincinnati has been studying these songs that he calls earworms, and has discovered that nearly everyone suffers from them at some time and that in general women are more susceptible to them than men, as are musicians. He’s also shown that there is no guaranteed way of ever getting the song out of your head, especially if you try a replacement strategy by thinking of a different tune, because more likely than not if you’ll replace one earworm for another! So, will this research lead to the pop industry releasing songs to deliberately plague us with hard-to-shift purpose-built earworms? (…some of you might say they already do that very well!) Well, maybe not. Prof Kellaris hasn’t found a winning formula for an effective earworm since people react differently to different tunes. We do know that one of the key elements of an earworm is repetition, since a tune with a lot of variation isn’t easily taken in.

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