Music

Why do songs get stuck in your head?

For the past few months, whenever I work on my forthcoming novella, A Bullet Through the Heart, the song “Jubilee Street” by Nick Cave starts to play in my head.

At first, I thought this was happening simply because I like the song (it’s really good!) and had been listening to it a lot (it’s really, really good!)

Then I started to wonder if I was listening to it a lot because I liked it … or did I like it because I was listening to it a lot? It turns out, I’m not the only writer who has this particular song stuck on repeat.

Writing about “Jubilee Street” in The New Yorker, Emily Flake posed the question, “Is it possible to have a crush on a song? The way that I listen when I’m truly enthralled by a particular piece of music certainly feels like a crush. … This is what I wake up with in my head, this is what I hum all day, this is what I’m listening to even when I’m supposed to be listening to you.”

Maybe I had a musical crush on “Jubilee Street,” like Flake? No. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. And there was something more sporadic and involuntary about the appearance of the song in my mind.

That’s when I realized that the song was stuck in my head.

“Jubilee Street” had become an earworm. An earworm, also known as sticky music or involuntary musical imagery, is a catchy tune that plays over and over, on a loop, in your mind. If you’ve been afflicted with an earworm recently, you’re not alone. Back in 2012, researchers reported that 90% of us get a song stuck in our heads at least once a week. These songs usually include memorable lyrics — “The lyrics [of ‘Jubilee Street’] come at the subject obliquely, all dire imagery and fever dreams,” Flake noted — as well as repetitive notes, distinctive rhythms, or unexpected intervals.

Earworms aren’t a new phenomenon created by the invention of radio or by the ubiquitous background music played in public settings like grocery stores. In 1876, Mark Twain published a short story, “A Literary Nightmare,” which tells the tale of a jingle that embeds itself in the minds of an entire community and plays over and over until the afflicted person transfers the song to someone else.

Earworms have appeared in science fiction as well. A maddening music box ditty stuck in Counselor Troi’s mind was a key plot point in an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

And they’ve even become a feature of the horror genre. Junji Ito chronicled the fearsome power of earworms in his manga, “Splendid Shadow Song,” showing us the terrible consequences of using one earworm to eradicate another.

In these fictional cases, the songs were new to the sufferers. However, according to a study published in Psychology of Music in 2013, it’s the songs you know well that are the most likely to get stuck in your head.

Was that why “Jubilee Street” was lodged in my mind? Was it a simple case of repetition?

Maybe not.

Researcher Lassi A. Liikkanen believes that earworms are a type of memory aid (albeit spontaneously generated) known as a mnemonic device. Today I Found Out elaborates on this concept: “For most of the 200,000 years of modern human evolution, facts, history, processes and other information were transmitted and remembered through spoken and sung words. This has led some scientists to opine that the human brain has become hard-wired to encode spoken and sung information, and recall it upon demand.”

And that’s when I found the final piece of the puzzle.

According to LiveScience writer Stephanie Pappas, “People are more likely to pick up an earworm when they are doing something routine, like jogging or chores.”

Or pondering the plot, characters and theme of a novella in progress.

“While the notes and lyrics are being memorized, the feelings and ideas the music also triggers are stored along with it. Then later, when that feeling or idea is remembered, it sometimes also brings a catchy portion of the song back up with it,” Today I Found Out explains. “Sometimes an aspect of your environment will trigger an earworm. … Indirect associations may develop, such as something going on around you when you hear a song causing your brain to associate the song with otherwise unrelated external factors. Later, when you’re in that same environment, your brain may dredge up the song and repeat the most memorable part of it over and over again in your mind.”

Which was exactly what was happening to me. I only heard the song in my head when I was working on — or even just thinking about — my novella.

A bullet through the heart

So, a final question remains: once you’ve got a song stuck in your head, how do you get it out? In the case of “Jubilee Street,” I’m not sure I want to. The song isn’t driving me mad … yet. At the close of her article on the strange appeal of the song, Flake agrees, “I’m trying not to overdo it, not to wear the song out, but it still feels transformative.”

You can check my author site, katherineluck.com, for updates on the novella’s status, as well as whether a new song has gotten stuck in my head. And if you want to remove an unwanted song from your mind, scientists recommend you do something that takes a bit of brainpower like a math problem, chew some gum, listen to the real version of the song, or try Junji Ito’s terrifying replacement earworm technique. Don’t say I didn’t warn you about that last one …

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