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An earworm, sometimes known as a brainworm, is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person's mind after it is no longer playing. Phrases used to describe an earworm include musical imagery repetition, involuntary musical imagery, and stuck song syndrome. The word earworm is a calque from the German Ohrwurm and was, according to Oliver Sacks, first used in the 1980s.
Researchers who have studied and written about the phenomenon include Theodor Reik, Sean Bennett, Oliver Sacks, Daniel Levitin, James Kellaris, Philip Beaman, Vicky Williamson, and, in a more theoretical perspective, Peter Szendy. The phenomenon is common and should not be confused with palinacousis, a rare medical condition caused by damage to the temporal lobe of the brain that results in auditory hallucinations.
According to research by James Kellaris, 98% of individuals experience earworms. Women and men experience the phenomenon equally often, but earworms tend to last longer for women and irritate them more. Kellaris produced statistics suggesting that songs with lyrics may account for 73.7% of earworms, whereas instrumental music may cause only 7.7%.
In a 2006 book by Daniel Levitin entitled This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, he states that research has shown musicians and people with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) are more likely to suffer from earworm attacks. An attack usually involves a small portion of a song, a hook, equal to or less than the capacity of one's auditory short-term memory. Levitin reports that capacity as usually 15 to 30 seconds. Simple tunes are more likely to get stuck than complex pieces of music. He also mentions that in some situations, OCD medications have been known to minimize the effects. In 2010, published data in the British Journal of Psychology directly addressed the subject, and its results support earlier claims that earworms are usually 15 to 30 seconds in length.
Scientists at Western Washington University found that engaging the working memory in moderately difficult tasks (such as anagrams, Sudoku puzzles, or reading a novel) was an effective way of stopping earworms and of reducing their recurrence. Another publication points out that melodic music has a tendency to demonstrate repeating rhythm which may lead to endless repetition, unless a climax can be achieved to break the cycle.
Jean Harris, who murdered Herman Tarnower, was obsessed by the song "Put the Blame on Mame", which she first heard in the film Gilda. She would recall this regularly for over 33 years and could hold a conversation while playing it in her mind.
It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burthen of some ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches from an opera. Nor will we be the less tormented if the song in itself be good, or the opera air meritorious.
In Robert Graves' memoir Good-Bye to All That (1929) he recorded that as he marched to battle in September 1915, "The men were singing...comic songs... Slippery Sam, When we'eve Wound up the Watch on the Rhine, and I do like a S'nice S'mince Pie. The tune of S'nice S'mince Pie ran in my head all week and I could not get rid of it." During the battle he wrote, "We waited on the fire step...for the order to go over. My mind was a blank, except for the recurrence of S'nice S'mince Pie, S'nice S'mince S'pie. The men laughed at my singing. The acting C.S.M. said: "It's murder, sir." "Of course it's murder, you bloody fool," I agreed. "But there's nothing else for it is there?""
In Henry Kuttner's short story "Nothing but Gingerbread Left" (1943), Kuttner imagines a secret allied effort against Nazi Germany using a catchy rhyme to break the opposition's concentration. English speakers were safe from the earworm, as the text did not scan in English.
In Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 science fiction short story "The Ultimate Melody", a scientist, Gilbert Lister, develops the ultimate melody – one that so compels the brain that its listener becomes completely and forever enraptured by it. As the storyteller, Harry Purvis, explains, Lister theorized that a great melody "made its impression on the mind because it fitted in with the fundamental electrical rhythms going on in the brain." Lister attempts to abstract from the hit tunes of the day to a melody that fits in so well with the electrical rhythms that it dominates them completely. He succeeds and is found in a catatonic state from which he never awakens.
In Fritz Leiber's Hugo Award-nominated short story "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee" (1959), the title describes a rhythmic drumbeat so powerful that it rapidly spreads to all areas of human culture, until a counter-rhythm is developed that acts as an antidote.
In Joe Simpson's 1988 book Touching the Void, he talks about not being able to get the tune "Brown Girl in the Ring" by Boney M out of his head. The book tells of his survival, against the odds, after a mountaineering accident in the remote Siula Grande region of South America. Alone, badly injured, and in a semi-delirious state, he is confused as to whether he is imagining the music or really hearing it.
In the Seinfeld episode "The Jacket" (season 2, episode 3), George Costanza (Jason Alexander) walks around singing "Master of the House" from the musical Les Misérables, telling his friend, Jerry Seinfeld, that he cannot get the song out of his head. Later, Costanza accidentally sings the song in front of their friend Elaine's hard-nosed father, Alton Benes (Lawrence Tierney), prompting Benes to quip, "Pipe down, chorus boy." At the end of the program, Benes is shown singing the song while driving home alone, having apparently "caught" the earworm from Costanza.
In episode 20 of season 7 of SpongeBob SquarePants, entitled "Ear Worm" (2010), SpongeBob gets a song stuck in his head called "Musical Doodle". The episode refers to the earworm as a physical creature that enters one's head upon listening to a catchy song.
In Dexter's Laboratory, Season 4 Episode 13 entitled "Head Band", a contagious group of viruses force their host to sing what they are saying to the same "boy band" tune. The only way to be cured of the Boy Band Virus is for the viruses to break up and start their own solo careers.
E.B. White's 1933 satirical short story "The Supremacy of Uruguay" (reprinted in Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow) relates a fictional episode in the history of Uruguay where a powerful earworm is discovered in a popular American song: "thanks for unforgettable nights I never can replace." The Uruguayan military builds a squadron of pilotless aircraft armed with phonographs playing a highly amplified recording of the earworm, and conquers the entire world by reducing the citizens of all nations to mindless insanity. "[T]he peoples were hopelessly mad, ravaged by an ineradicable noise ... No one could hear anything except the noise in his own head."
An article by ZME Science identified the following as factors of a song being catchy: longer and detailed musical phrases; higher number of pitches in the chorus hook; male vocalists; and higher male voices with noticeable vocal effort. Using these factors, it was concluded that British rock band Queen's "We Are The Champions" is the catchiest song in history.
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