You’ve had that jingle from the Chili’s commercial in your head for years.
I want my baby-back, baby-back, baby-back…
Why can’t you get it out of your head?!
Those repetitive songs that worm their way into your brain—deemed “earworms” from the German word “ohrwurm," which means "catchy tune."—are irritating to say the least. (Enter the mystified friend: “Seriously, how are you still singing that? Stop!”) The good news is, researchers have a general idea of what causes them and how to treat them.
First things first, a wormy explanation: The general theory is that earworms are caused by an auditory loop in our brains. That parrot-like brain mechanism that lets us repeat things back after we hear them—say, a phone number or address—is the same mechanism that gets us stuck on annoyingly cute jingles.
So hey, as you go completely bonkers, at least you know it’s normal! In fact, a 2003 study reported that 98 percent of us suffer earworms at some point—although, they’re most likely to annoy women, and to occur in the form of a lyrical song versus some other ditty. (You win, Katy Perry. You win.)
"Songs with lyrics are reported as most frequently stuck (74 percent), followed by commercial jingles (15 percent) and instrumental tunes without words (11 percent),” James J. Kellaris, Ph.D., the study’s lead researcher at the University of Cincinnati, wrote in his study. (The jingle stat seems surprisingly lower than expected, doesn’t it? All the more embarrassing that we spent most of the 90’s humming to Kit Kat’s “Gimme a Break.”)
Amazingly, musical minds may be most affected when it comes to earworms, as they’re easily hooked by rhythmic patterns. Believe it or not, DJ Earworm—yes, you heard that right—has made a career out of crafting the perfect earworms for music-loving ears. Those famous Top 100 mash-ups you hear in ‘da club, featuring Britney, Bruno Mars and the like? Yup, that’s DJ Earworm.
“A good tune has just the right amount of repetition,” he says. “Too little and it’s forgettable, and too much and it’s annoying. [It] also strikes the perfect balance of familiarity and newness. if it’s not similar to anything you’ve heard before, you can’t digest it, but if it’s too similar, then it’s not original enough.”
Just imagine his personal earworms on a given day!
When we quizzed our Facebook readers about earworms, the music-affliction seemed to ring true there too. A significant number of responses came from musicians, plagued by songs related to their work or hobby.
“I’m a professional musician, and it seems that the pieces that get stuck in my head are things that my students are playing, or things I’m working on,” YouBeauty Facebook fan Lacy Schroeder Garber told us. Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky are frequent auditory offenders for her—clearly a seasoned ear.
Other tunes? Not so much. Kellaris’ research cites some of the most common “earwormy” songs, and they’re not necessarily what you would call…classy. “YMCA”? “Whoomp, There It Is”? “Who Let The Dogs Out”?! Yup, even Chili’s “Baby Back Ribs” song made the list. Right up there with “Mission Impossible.”
But the real mission impossible: Getting these songs out of your head for good!
Or, is it? YouBeauty Psychology Advisor Art Markman, Ph.D., doesn’t seem to think so. He says there are actually simple ways to treat a case of earworm-itis.
“The easiest way to do it is to replace it with another one,” he says. “We all have certain loops that we can get to play in our heads if we try. Really what you want to do, if [your earworm] is really driving you nutty, is to basically interfere with it.
It’s the era of the iPod—pop those earbuds in and listen to something else. But whatever you do, don’t even think about cursing the auditory brain-loop that caused your lovely earworms in the first place. Without it, Markman says, you wouldn’t be able to sort numbers, learn language or even identify sounds at all.
Besides, thinking about your earworm can sometimes trigger the effect all together. And, as YouBeauty Facebook fan Lizz Ramsdell Kresconko put it: “Can’t think of [my earworm] right now, thank goodness, but if it comes back to me now, I will be VERY angry with you!!!!!!”
Sometimes, a little distraction is the only Rx you need.
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