Got A Song Stuck In Your Head?… Scientists Offer Advice


Much like Eric Cartman can’t get the Styx classic “Come Sail Away” out of his head in that famous South Park episode, “Cartman’s Mom is Still a Dirty Slut,” songs often get stuck on repeat in our minds. Known as “earworms” to scientists, we sometimes will try just about anything to get the repetitive tunes out of our brains. In “South Park,” Cartman thinks he has to sing the entire song to his friends to get it out of his head, which ends up infecting Stan, but a group at Western Washington University thinks playing simple mind puzzles is the answer to forcing the annoying music from our active thought processes. Although five-letter anagram puzzles work best, Sudoku can also be effective, as long as the puzzles aren’t too difficult.

“Verbal tasks like anagrams or reading a good novel seem to be very good at keeping earworms out,” said Ira Hyman, a music psychologist who conducted the study. But identifying the right level of challenge that appropriately occupies the brain is key.

“Something we can do automatically like driving or walking means you are not using all of your cognitive resource, so there is plenty of space left for that internal jukebox to start playing,” Hyman said. “You need to find that bit in the middle.”

As would be expected, the most common earworms are songs that are either well known or high on the charts. But would you believe that the most common artist to get stuck in survey respondents’ heads is Lady Gaga, followed by Beyonce and then the Beatles?

“Music is relatively harmless but easy to start,” Hyman explained to the Telegraph. “Choruses tend to get stuck in your head because they are the bit we know best and because we don’t know the second or third verse, the song remains unfinished. Unfinished thoughts are more likely to return.”

Researchers found the songs most likely to be earworms are Alejandro and Bad Romance by Lady Gaga; Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen; Single Ladies by Beyonce; She Loves You and I Wanna Hold Your Hand by the Beatles; SOS by Rihanna; You Belong to Me by Taylor Swift; and Waterloo by ABBA.

Are earworms just the songs we hear most, or do certain songs hold a better earworm quality? In 2010 researchers at the University of Montreal found some songs are indeed “stickier” than others.

“Repetitive songs will be more likely to get stuck, as well as songs without really profound words,” says Sylvie Hebert, professor at the University of Montreal School of Speech Therapy and Audiology. “Lots of la-la-las and doopity-doopity-dahs. Also, the songs that get stuck are very familiar songs. And it’s usually the chorus that gets stuck.”

Researchers found earworms are most likely to occur when people are in a good mood and conducting non-intellectual activities, like walking. And those who are musically inclined generally get longer-lasting earworms.

Herbert’s study didn’t focus on getting rid of earworms, but some of her subjects did say they tried getting rid of theirs by infecting someone else.

“Some say they would sing the song to somebody else,” she said. “People said they did that.”

So maybe Cartman had it right after all…