The Science Behind The Songs That Get Stuck In Your Head

It seems to happen to everyone. A song, or maybe just a part of a song — a chorus, or a few lyrics and accompanying notes — plays on repeat in your head throughout the day and you just can't seem to get it out. Psychologists have figured out some aspects of involuntary musical imagery, the technical name for earworms, like what types of songs are the most likely to get stuck in your head and the kinds of people most likely to be affected by them, according to CBS News, citing research published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts (posted at the American Psychological Association – APA).

The first sentence of this story wasn't mere hyperbole. According to the Harvard Health Blog, earworms affect 98% of people in the western world. Pop songs tend to dominate the charts when it comes to earworms. A 2016 study involving 3,000 participants found Lady Gaga topping the chart for most reported cases of involuntary musical imagery, with three of her songs included on the list of the top nine (per CBS). That was a few years ago and, at least according to Mashable, songs by Doja Cat and Taylor Swift, among other acts, were the earwormiest of them all in 2021. A few classic rock songs, including Journey's "Can't Stop Believing" and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" also made the 2016 earworm list (per APA).

Song structure and brain shape

What qualities make a song most likely to bore into our brains and refuse to leave? "Our findings show that you can, to some extent, predict which songs are going to get stuck in people's heads based on the song's melodic content," Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, who led the 2016 University of London study, told BBC Science Focus. Among the predictors are a simple and fast melodic contour — a rising and falling in pitch — and unique intervals between notes, per the Harvard Health Blog. It's easy to see why the music of Lady Gaga, Doja Cat, and Taylor Swift would make the cut here.

Beyond the types of songs that are liable to turn into earworms, the shape of our brains may play a part in how predisposed we are to becoming musically infected. A 2015 study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition found that there was a relationship between the thickness of certain parts of the brain and the frequency of earworms (via Science Direct). The study also determined earworms involved multiple brain networks used in "perception, emotions, memory and spontaneous thoughts."

How do you get rid of an earworm? 

How often we get earworms may also be related to both our psychological makeup and extraneous factors, such as how much we're exposed to a certain song. People with obsessive-compulsive or neurotic traits or people who typically seek out new experiences may be more likely to catch earworms, according to the Harvard Health Blog. Mood can also trigger earworms, according to a 2020 study by Dr. Kelly Jakubowski and her team that reviewed all the research data gathered on the subject (per Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, posted at Springer). Being stressed, inattentive, or surprised can trigger earworms.

While there's no sure-fire cure for getting rid of earworms, scientists recommend distracting yourself, listening to another song or the song that's stuck in your head (paradoxically, this often works), or chewing gum, per CBS News. Leave it to the Germans and their penchant for descriptive language to come up with the term earworm — öhrwurm in German — in relation to involuntary musical imagery, which they coined in the 1950s, according to Merriam-Webster.