Earworms: catchy songs that loop in your head

We’ve all been there. Sometimes they’re songs you love, but more often than not, you just find them annoying. At any rate, once these catchy songs get into our heads, we just can’t seem to shake them. But what exactly is behind the phenomenon? And what is the history? In this article, we take a deep dive into the subject and related topics!

Pesky little critters

It’s probably happened to all of you: an earworm, i.e. a melody that repeats over and over in your head. In most cases, it’s not because you love the song so much. But they come on out of nowhere and can stay with us for hours, sometimes even days. The term “earworm” entered English as an adaptation of the German “Ohrwurm,” which has the same meaning. However, other languages refer to them by terms that literally translate to “ear borer,” “ear gum,” or “sticky sound.”

In German, “Ohrmwurm” originally referred to the insects known in English as earwigs. In English as in German, their name is popularly believed to come from an old wives’ tale that the harmless little bugs burrowed through the ear into the brain to lay their eggs. However, while they have rarely been known to seek shelter in the ears of people sleeping outdoors, they are not specifically attracted to ears, and certainly do not lay their eggs anywhere near humans. Standing in stark contrast to their cross-linguistic namesakes, though, the musical variety have given rise to more than their fair share of human suffering.

What makes an earworm?

There is no universal formula for determining which songs turn into earworms. Often, they come from songs that are easy to remember and have catchy melodies. Also, it seems our brains are particularly good at recalling melodies that first rise, then fall in pitch.

Another feature many earworms have in common is that they make you want to dance and sing along. Often, one line or the chorus get repeated many times, which lead to them getting stuck in our heads. This is true for many folk songs, for example. In addition to very catchy and simple melodies, surprising or unusual sequences can also be hard to shake. For example, when songs make unexpected jumps in pitch.

A young smiling woman listening to songs with Teufel's SUPREME ON headphones.
Earworms invite the listener to sing along

What makes catchy songs stick?

When we make memories for the first time, they get embedded into the temporal lobe of our brains. That is the part responsible for the inner monologue. But for melodies to become earworms, a second part of the brain has to step in: the frontal lobe. This is the area where our brains “play” music.

And earworms then are when these two regions of the brain essentially play ping-pong off one another. When we hear a melody, the temporal lobe sends a stimulus to the frontal to get us singing along. This in turn causes us to “hear” the song in our head, triggering the temporal lobe. And thus, a vicious circle is created where a “loop button” in our mind keeps getting pressed over and over again.

Earworms tend to strike when we are relaxed or bored. As if our mind is begging us for entertainment and, when it doesn’t get any, simply makes its own. However, when we engage in activities requiring lots of concentration, the connection between the temporal lobe and frontal is severed, cutting off earworms at the source.

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Our top 15 earworms: blessing or torture? That’s up to you!

The list of songs that have burned themselves into the minds of countless people is neverending. We have collected a few of the worst offenders from our home in Germany and beyond for you here. Surely, you’ve fallen victim to at least one of them. Feel free to comment and let us know, plus add some more of your own!

Tip: Listen to these earworms and others any time on music streaming services such as Spotify, Napster, and others.

How to stop an earworm in it’s tracks: 7 tips that just might save your life

It’s very possible that the reason you clicked on this post in the first place is because you’re suffering from an earworm right this second. Sometimes, they are extremely persistent and do not go away for hours and hours. If you’re looking for tips to stave off earworms, you’ve come to the right place:

  • Listen to the full song: This tip may sound masochistic, but it has been proven to help. Often, resolving the musical phrases that get stuck in our heads can help clear them out.
  • Listen to another song: Sometimes, it can help to keep your mind occupied with other music. Ideally, it should be a song that sounds very dissimilar from the earworm to avoid mutating back into the original tune.
  • Chew gum: One popularly suggested remedy is to chew gum. While your brain focuses on one activity, it may not have space to keep repeating the earworm.
  • Find something else to do: At times, it helps to find something to keep your mind occupied. How about playing a rhythm game, for instance?
  • Challenge your mind: Another option is to engage your brain. Puzzles like Sudoku are noted to work particularly well.
  • Change your pace: Sometimes, earworms strike because the rhythm of our walking or running matches a song we heard recently. Speeding up or slowing down often fixes that.
  • Accept your fate: If none of these tips are helping, you have no choice but to admit defeat. Try not to think about how annoying the song is. Sooner or later it will go away… hopefully.

Catch your next earworm today with Teufel Audio

Earworm slayer! The Teufel Radio 3Sixty placed on the floor in the rays of a bright sun playing catchy songs.
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Fun Facts: Did you know…?

Wannabe by the Spice Girls is thought to be the biggest earworm of all time? At any rate, a 2014 study by the University of Amsterdam said so.

… in The Lego Movie 2 the main characters are brainwashed with an earworm?

… there’s a German song named after the concept? Coming from the band Wise Guys, its amusing chorus can be translated as “Hello, Hello, I am your earworm.”

Which songs have gotten stuck in your head before? What’s stuck in it now? Share with us in the comments, maybe it will help!

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