by Freya Bailes
Academic Fellow in Music Psychology , University of Leeds
Are you imagining music in your head? If so, it’s probably a certain Kylie Minogue hit. Sorry. But hopefully, once you’ve read this, you’ll be in a better position than you were before to get rid of it, or any other imaginary music playing on repeat in your mind’s ear.
Research suggests that “earworms” – that experience of having music stuck in your head – are commonplace. It also suggests, contrary to popular belief, that most of the time earworms are not particularly troublesome. But I’m not alone in sometimes seeking to silence those silent songs. So here are six tips for earworm eradication based on the latest research.
1. Shut your ears
First of all, avoid music. This is certainly easier said than done – and, as a musician, not something I would seriously recommend. That being said, I’m careful to avoid hearing any music before going to bed, since its transformation into an earworm interferes with my sleep. Repetition and recency are the dreaded “Rs” of earworm sufferers.
Try not to listen to a song over and over again, and avoid music that is in itself highly repetitive. We also know that having heard a song recently is the most cited reason for then imagining it. If you’d rather that a different song played from your mental jukebox, make sure that this is the last thing that you hear.
There is also some evidence that if the music we are listening to is interrupted, we continue it mentally (known as the “Zeigarnik effect”). To prevent this from happening, it’s advisable to listen through to the end of the track.
2. Physical remedies
But should these earworm prevention tips have failed, how can we get rid of intrusive musical thoughts?
A recent research paper claims that chewing gum provides a simple solution. In a series of experiments, participants who were given gum to chew reported fewer earworms than those who weren’t. Normally, our vocal apparatus is involved in singing, so the theory goes that when our jaws are otherwise engaged, our ability to imagine music is impaired.
Another tip to foil your earworm is to walk at a much faster or slower pace than the song’s beat. It seems that we form relatively accurate memories for the tempo of familiar music. We also know that movement (for example dancing, tapping, nodding along) is an important contributor to earworm experience. By using body movement to disturb our memory for the musical tempo, we can interrupt the musical flow to end the seemingly automatic mental replay.
A popular way to engage with music is to sing it. Research suggests that if you’re prone to everyday singing, you’re also prone to earworms that last for a relatively long time. Why not turn this to your advantage and make an active choice to serenade those around you with music that would provide a positive mental accompaniment to your day? When that unwanted earworm starts, sing something else, out loud. Singing the theme to 80 Days Around the World, the cartoon from the 1980s, used to be my personal antidote, but now I’m more selective in my musical choices.
4. Listen to your mood
One of the factors shaping my choice of music to imagine is my mood. An extensive survey of earworm reports points to the importance of mood, stress and emotional state in the occurrence of earworms.
There is also some evidence that when we imagine a particular song, our mood approximates the way we felt when we heard it. So if you were angry when you heard Justin Bieber on the radio this morning, you might feel angry when it’s circling your brain later in the day.
More psychological research is needed to understand whether we deliberately imagine music to regulate our emotions. In the meantime, if the mood evoked by the music in your head does not correspond to your desired emotional state, change the (mental) record.
5. Phone a friend
To eradicate earworms altogether, consider doing a mental activity that is either more or less challenging. We know that routine activities which are low in cognitive load, such as tooth brushing, are conducive to mind wandering, which can in turn lead to involuntary musical imagery. On the other hand, mentally demanding tasks such as difficult homework have also been associated with earworms.
But mind wandering rarely occurs when we socialise; an activity that lies in the middle of the range for its mental challenge. A potentially pleasant way to banish unwanted musical thoughts could be to spend time with friends.
6. Don’t try so hard
It would be remiss of me not to warn you of the irony that attempts to deliberately control our thoughts have been known to have the opposite effect. Interestingly, differences in how much we want to suppress earworms appear to be reflected in the cortical structures of our brain.
If your earworms have resisted all deliberate attempts to banish them, my final advice is to stop trying and to distract yourself. Some people find musical or verbal distractions such as watching TV to be particularly effective, if you have the leisure. I should be so lucky. (“Lucky, lucky, lucky…”)