Friday, April 26, 2013

The Curious Case of the Earworm (Part 2)


In Part 1 of this topic, we explored the reasons why we like certain songs. But what transforms that likable melody into an earworm? Or is likability even a contributing factor? We took the biochemical/neurological route in Part 1, so now we’re gonna go all psychology for this one with a paper published in 2011 in Psychology of Music.

Let’s get some terminology out of the way first. We all have internally-directed thought (all that stuff you think to yourself), and we also experience spontaneous cognitions, which are those “common, everyday experiences that occur against a backdrop of deliberate goals-directed mental processes.” Musical imagery is associated with this. Involuntary musical imagery (INMI) is when a piece of music comes unbidden into your mind and repeats outside of your conscious control. It is the “earworm”, “brain worm,” “sticky music,” “cognitive itch,” and/or “stuck song syndrome.” This 2011 study looked to see if there were any patterns in everyday life that lead to an INMI episode, basically what prompts an earworm. The researchers first wanted to catalog known instances of earworms. So they used a radio feature where listeners could contact the presenter/DJ to describe their earworm experiences, and they used an online survey on the radio’s website to collect earworms. This survey allowed people to answer questionnaires and even write descriptions of the songs stuck in their heads. Their results showed eight dominant themes to describe INMI triggering. These themes were then grouped into four abstract categories (listed from most common cause to least):

Music exposure – this theme is divided into recent and repeated. Recent exposure is when you hear music and then later have an INMI experience. Repeated exposure is when you hear the music on multiple occasions before an earworm occurs.

Memory triggers – this theme relates to INMI episodes that are triggered not when you hear a song but when you remember a song. This can happen through Association in which you might sight a person, situation, word, sound, or rhythm that triggers the earworm. Or it may happen through Recollection, a personal memory that acts as the trigger. It may also be the result of Anticipation, an upcoming event that is connected to a tune.

Affective states – this theme is more situational. Your mood, stress level, and emotions can all cause earworms.

Law attention states – this theme is abstract in that it relates to circumstances where the demands on your brain are low. These times are usually when you are dreaming or when your mind wanders.

This is a psychology study and so delves into involuntary retrieval theory and states of mind. I won’t go in to all of that. I’ll simply say that this study is interesting because it categorizes the cues associated with earworms. A simple but effective exercise. If you are like me, then you probably read most or all of those and thought, “Yep, that’s how it happens with me,” or something similar.

A recent study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, looked into this question of earworms a bit more. These researchers wanted to know what gets stuck and why. This study first uses a survey designed to collect earworm experiences, focusing on the cues that cause them, the nature of re-experiencing the song, and if commonly stuck songs are liked or disliked.

This survey found that a person’s connection to the song predicted which songs became earworms (you usually know your earworm well), and it is usually the result of recent exposure (supporting the "music exposure" results of the previous study). It also showed that the song itself was unique to the individual, and that people generally liked the song stuck in their heads but less so the more often it got stuck. That makes sense; the longer that song is in there the more you just go AHH! You know how you repeat only part of the song over and over, usually the chorus? This science says you aren’t alone, this is how it happens with a lot of people. However, if you are a musician or someone who listens to music constantly or for a large part of the day, you are more likely to develop an earworm. When the researchers had people keep an earworm diary, they found similar results.

Next, the scientists ran a few lab experiments. The first experiment tried to induce an earworm by having participants evaluate songs, then engage in an unrelated task (solving a maze), and then report any earworms. They found no effects of music type but that song order affected both earworm duration and the likelihood that the earworm would return. The last song you hear is probably the one that will get stuck in your head. The next lab experiment investigated the role of cognitive load (how strained your brain is). They used the method of the first experiment with the exception that they made the tasks harder (Sudoku puzzles of various difficulty levels), making the brain work more (hard puzzle = large cognitive load). They found that the last song became an earworm more often regardless of cognitive load, but it played for a longer time in people with more challenging puzzles. Also, if a person reported the last song as an earworm playing during the puzzle then they were more likely to have the song return later (during a lower cognitive low) as compared to those people who didn’t have the song playing during their puzzle. The last experiment was an extension of the cognitive load experiment, this time using a verbal task (solving anagrams of various difficulties) instead of a puzzle. Here, the researchers found similar results to the second experiment in that song order was important, especially for more difficult tasks. However, the last song was experienced less when completing verbal tasks than nonverbal tasks.

Whew. That was a lot of info in a small amount of space. If we sum up Part 1 and 2, what did we learn? Well, when you hear something you like your brain releases dopamine, the feel good, reward stuff. Your brain stores information about the kinds of songs you like and later uses that information to decide if it likes a song if you’ve never heard before. If it decides that you like it then it gives you your reward, making you want to hear that song again. Songs you enjoy are more likely to develop into earworms, particularly if they are the last song you hear, but there are other situational and emotional experiences that can trigger and earworm too (that whole science-is-never-simple thing again).

“I’m gonna pop some tags – Only got twenty dollars in my pocket….” ....*sigh*


ResearchBlogging.orgWilliamson, V., Jilka, S., Fry, J., Finkel, S., Mullensiefen, D., & Stewart, L. (2011). How do "earworms" start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery Psychology of Music, 40 (3), 259-284 DOI: 10.1177/0305735611418553

ResearchBlogging.orgHyman, I., Burland, N., Duskin, H., Cook, M., Roy, C., McGrath, J., & Roundhill, R. (2013). Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27 (2), 204-215 DOI: 10.1002/acp.2897


Did you know you can still participate in the earworm study? Just go over to The Earwormery

The above image and a good little article on this topic can be found at 100.3 the Q's article "You Say Earworm, I Say Musicosis"
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