You Knew Earworms Were Real–But Now They’re Official

Everyone has suffered an “earworm,” whether you knew what to call it or not. You know, that song that crept from somewhere in your cortex and began to sing itself over and over and—

Even as I write this, Tom Petty is crooning “It’s Good to Be King” in my ear, which hopefully is a reflection of my current state of mind. A couple of days ago, it was horrific as I couldn’t stop Glen Campbell from wailing “Galveston” until I wanted to beat my head against the wall. Why that song, which I haven’t heard in at least two decades, at least not that I remember? Had I done something unmentionable and my brain, that so-called conscience therein, was punishing me? I finally had to plug in “Exile on Main Street” at a painful decibel rate to drive Glen out of town. Of course, then “Tumbling Dice” started rolling around, and, for some bizarre reason, it was the Linda Rondstadt version.

But, still, better than “Galveston.” Oh, what, now it’s in your head? Sorry.

But I digress. The news is that “earworm” has officially been accepted into the lexicon of life by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in their latest update, joining other such keywords as mashup, sexting, man cave, and f-bomb. “Earworm” is defined as “a song or melody that keeps repeating in one’s mind.” But as one commentator put it, “it’s more like an insidious virus holding up a tiny boombox inside your brain, playing the same song over and over and over.”

It turns out, however, that an earworm is not just a wicked trick of your brain, but something scientifically referred to as a “cognitive itch” or, more simply, a “brain itch” within the auditory cortex. And, like any itch, the only way to soothe it is to scratch it–as in repetition. The exact cause of earworms has yet to be pinpointed, but researchers believe that “brain itch” occurs as a result of the brain’s affinity for pattern recognition. Indeed, there might even be something Darwinian about this phenomenon, traceable back to the use of songs to retain information during our pre-language dark nights huddled around a fire on the grasslands.

Doctor Earworm (a.k.a. James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati) has found through his research that probably 99% of us have had an earworm embed itself at some point. Women, he says, are more frequent sufferers, while musicians and people with “neurotic tendencies” (I resent that) are more susceptible. Doctor Earworm also found earworm episodes last a few hours and occur “frequently” or “very frequently” among over 60% of his study sample. Face it, that’s a lot of earworms swirling around at any given time, which perhaps explains why some other things go unheard.

As for Doctor Earworm’s recommendations on ridding oneself of this cranial parasite, he suggests listening to other music, what he terms “eraser tunes.” He also says listening to the offending tune in its entirety or putting your mind to some other task may do the trick. But, proving Doctor Earworm has a dark side, he also mentions “passing the offending earworm on to someone else.” He doesn’t say exactly how, and I’m not sure I want to know.

By the way, have you ever heard Glen Campbell do “Galveston?” Hear it now?

Want to learn more about current research on earworms and participate in an ongoing study? Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London want to hear from you.


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