From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e



An earworm is a piece of music that sticks in one's mind so that one seems to hear it, even when it is not being played. Other phrases used to describe this include musical imagery repetition and involuntary musical imagery. The phenomenon is common in normal life and so may be distinguished from brain damage which results in palinacousis.

This is also called a 'haunting melody' or 'hard-to-shake melody'. It is a type of song that typically has a high, upbeat melody and repetitive lyrics that verge between catchy and annoying. Earworm is also referred as 'stuck song syndrome', 'involuntary musical imagery' (INMIs), 'brainworms', or 'sticky music'. Researchers who have studied and written about the phenomenon include Theodor Reik, Sean Bennett, Oliver Sacks, Daniel Levitin, James Kellaris, Philip Beaman Vicky Williamson, and, in a more theoretical perspective, Peter Szendy.

One reason that this occurs is that melodic music tends to have a rhythm which repeats. This cyclical nature may cause endless repetition unless some way to achieve a climax is found which breaks the cycle.



According to research by James Kellaris, 98% of individuals experience earworms. Women and men experience the phenomenon equally often, but earworms tend to last longer for women and irritate them more. Kellaris produced statistics suggesting that songs with lyrics may account for 73.7% of earworms, whereas instrumental music may cause only 7.7%.

In a 2006 book by Daniel Levitin entitled, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, he states that research has shown musicians and people with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) are more likely to suffer from earworm attacks. An attack usually involves a small portion of a song equal to or less than the capacity of one's auditory short-term memory. Levitin reports that capacity as usually 15 to 30 seconds. Simple tunes are more likely to get stuck than complex pieces of music. He also mentions that in some situations, OCD medications have been known to minimize the effects. In 2010, published data in the British Journal of Psychology directly addressed the subject, and its results support earlier claims that earworms are usually 15 to 30 seconds in length.

Notable cases

Jean Harris, who murdered Dr. Herman Tarnower, was obsessed by the song "Put the Blame on Mame" which she first heard in the film Gilda. She would recall this regularly for over 33 years and could hold a conversation while playing it in her mind.

In popular culture

Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Imp of the Perverse" (1845) has the following:

It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burthen of some ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches from an opera. Nor will we be the less tormented if the song in itself be good, or the opera air meritorious.

Mark Twain's 1876 story "A Literary Nightmare" (also known as "Punch, Brothers, Punch") is about a jingle which one can get rid of only by transferring it to another person.

In Henry Kuttner's short story "Nothing but Gingerbread Left" (1943), Kuttner imagines a secret allied effort against Nazi Germany using a catchy rhyme to break the opposition's concentration. English speakers were safe from the earworm, as the text did not scan in English.

In Alfred Bester's 1953 novel The Demolished Man, the protagonist 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 tunes of the day to a melody which 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.

In Fritz Leiber's Hugo Award-nominated short story "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee" (1959), the title describes a rhythmic drumbeat so powerful that it rapidly spreads to all areas of human culture, until a counter-rhythm is developed which acts as an antidote.

In Joe Simpson's 1988 book, Touching the Void, he talks about not being able to get the tune "Brown Girl in the Ring" by Boney M, out of his head. The book tells of his survival, against the odds, after a mountaineering accident in the remote Siula Grande region of South America. Alone, badly injured, and in a semi-delirious state, he is confused as to whether or not he is imagining the music, or really hearing it.

In episode 20, season 7 of SpongeBob SquarePants entitled "Ear Worm" (2010), SpongeBob gets a song stuck in his head called "Musical Doodle".

In 2012, the band Jim's Big Ego released an album entitled Stay that contains a track named "Earworm". The final verse mentions the mind-controlling eel from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Earworm" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools