Earworms: Songs in Your Head

Joel Loong, via Flickr

Do you ever have a song that you cannot stop thinking about? Robin Basselin and Ryan Geertsma look at earworms.

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Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight, I’m Robin Basselin.

Voice 2 

And I’m Ryan Geertsma. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

Do you ever have a song that you cannot stop thinking about? You try to stop, but the song just continues in your mind. It plays again, and again, and again... This is a common problem. And the problem has an unusual name. It is called an earworm.

Voice 2 

When most people hear the word worm, they think of a very small thin animal with no legs. But an earworm is not this kind of worm. Earworms are songs or parts of songs. A real worm digs deep into the ground. But an earworm digs deep into your mind. An earworm may stay in your thoughts for minutes, hours, or even days! And it can be very difficult to get a musical earworm out of your mind. Today’s Spotlight is on earworms.

Voice 1 

Almost everyone has experienced an earworm. Some people experience earworms almost every day. For other people, it only happens once in a long time. Spotlight producer Courtney Schutt describes her own experience with earworms.

Voice 3 

“I have an earworm every day. Sometimes it lasts for only an hour. Other times, it can last all day. I have a few particular songs that often stick in my mind. They begin when I am not expecting them. My most common earworm is the French children’s song “Alouette”. My mind just keeps singing the main part of the song over and over.

Alouette, gentille Alouette
Alouette, je te plumerai

I learned this song when I was a child. My grandfather would sing it with me. But I do not often hear it anymore. I do not know why this song comes to my mind.”

Voice 2 

Lassi A. Liikkanen is a scientist in Finland. He studies the human brain. His research shows that earworms are very common. In 2009, he asked people in Finland to answer questions about earworms. He received almost 12,000 answers. Dr. Liikkanen’s results showed that 90% percent of people experience an earworm about once a week.

Voice 1 

So what makes people experience earworms? Dr. Lauren Stewart studies music and the human brain at Goldsmiths - University of London. She told CNN that it is still difficult to completely explain earworms:

Voice 4 

"What is interesting to us is the fact that this musical imagery comes to the brain without planned effort. It is as if comes from nowhere. We are still trying to learn why that happens.”

Voice 2 

Earworms are difficult to research. Scientists cannot directly see, hear or measure the results of an earworm. So they cannot study earworms separate from the people who experience them. Instead, scientists must ask people to tell them about their past personal experience. Gathering research results in this way can take a lot of time. And comparing people’s different experiences can be difficult.

Voice 1 

Victoria Williamson is another researcher at Goldsmiths-University of London.  She recognized the difficulties of studying earworms.  So, 2011, she decided to start a group research project.  The project is called The Earwormery.

Voice 2 

The Earwormery project uses the internet to continuously gather information about earworms. On their website earwormery.com, the group asks individuals about their experiences. They ask questions like: What song is your earworm? What were you doing when you experienced the earworm? And do you have an idea of what caused the earworm?

Voice 1 

Williamson talked with Public Radio International about the results from the first question – ‘What song is your earworm?’

Voice 5 

"When I had gathered results for 1,000 earworm songs, there were only about six songs that were named more than once. That is how mixed the answers were. An earworm is a very individual experience."

Voice 2 

Next, Williamson and The Earwormery decided to see if there were clear reasons why songs became earworms. The research showed four possible influences.

Voice 1 

The first influence is simply hearing the song. A song may become an earworm for an individual just because they have heard it recently. Another reason a song may become an earworm is repetition. Sometimes an individual hears or plays a particular song often. When this happens, the song is more likely to become an earworm.

Voice 2 

Another influence the study showed was stress - a feeling of mental pressure caused by problems in life. Stress can bring past experiences into the mind. And often people have strong connections between memories and music. So a particular memory may cause the brain to think of a particular song.

Voice 1 

The Earwormery project found one last major cause for earworms - triggers. Triggers are sights, sounds, or smells in the environment. These triggers can cause an individual to start thinking about a particular song. A person may not even know what trigger brought a song to her mind.

Voice 2 

Williamson told PRI about a trigger that caused her to experience an earworm. It all started with a shoe box.

Voice 5 

“The box was from a store called Faith. Just by reading the word faith, my mind went down a path. It made connections from one thing to the next. Finally, it reached the song Faith by George Michael. And then the song was in my head for the rest of the day.”

Voice 1 

Scientists are just beginning to understand how and why earworms happen. However, most people are interested in an entirely different question: ‘what can you do when you have an earworm playing over and over in your head?’

Voice 2 

Scientists do not have a cure for earworms. But people who experience earworms often have many suggested solutions. BBC news recently published an article about earworms.  Soon after, many BBC listeners offered these ideas about how to stop earworms:

Voice 6 

“My best cure for 'earworm removal' is to try doing difficult math problems in my head. The fact that I concentrate to complete the math problem usually helps.”

Voice 7 

“I just write the words of the song down backwards - from the last letter to the first. Then I sing the words as written down... This troubles the brain. And it immediately stops singing.”

Voice 8 

“When this happens to me, I try to sing the song as if I am performing it. I sing with great excitement. Then I finish by singing loud and strong. And I hope that will "finish" the song.”

Voice 1 

The research shows that people have very individual earworm songs. People also seem to have many different ways to end earworms. But what about you? What are your earworms? And how do you make an earworm stop? Tell us about it. You can e-mail us at radio@radioenglish.net.

Voice 2 

The writer of this program was Courtney Schutt. The producer was Ryan Geertsma. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted and voiced by Spotlight. You can find our programs on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called “Earworms: Songs in Your Head.”


Do you ever have a song you cannot stop thinking about, or singing? How do you stop thinking about it or singing it?


Avatar Spotlight
Rain Bows
said on May 14, 2012

Spotlight team is awesome, I thank you all guys so much for making me improve my English, all the articles are great, I would follow spotlight forever.
Greetings from Ecuador :)

Avatar Spotlight
said on May 14, 2012

As for me I do not have a musical earworm in my mind . I like listening to sweet songs and sometime I try to repeat or play it again and again and I can remember it but only a short period of time. I stick to it only a short period so I am also able to remember it a short period .
I don’t have much time to focus only music or songs because I have a lot things to do and achieve in my life .

From Cambodia

humble71's avatar
said on May 14, 2012

Earworms, they are very useful for singers ...all the fans of a musical group have “earworms in their head”. It’s interesting to know that we could fall in this behaviour very fast .  Actually I have earworms because I repeat the songs of a famous english group and I repeat again and again and sing the lyrics with youtube . I stop listening these songs changing of activity for example read a book three times per week at nights and listening other famous singers or musical groups.Thanks my friends , it’s a very useful program.

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D Nguyen
said on May 15, 2012

I experience earworm almost everyday and it doesn’t bother me at all. When a song come to my mind I often automatically sing it along and it makes me feel excited, my voice isn’t bad though.

duryan's avatar
said on May 20, 2012

my earworms don’t bother me :)

Avatar Spotlight
said on June 10, 2013

I also experience an earworm, it luckily only becomes from time to time, particularly when I go to bed and want to fall asleep. I can’t rid of these songs, it sometimes sounds in my thoughts for a long time. I feel it is disturbing for my sleeping very much. And I still don’t know what is reason of this doing in my head.
Thanks for an interesting article!

Avatar Spotlight
said on June 11, 2013

I have earworm in my head most of all when I am excited, I think that is stress
or concerned about anything.
The true is a bad psycological in our mind, because the theme is sound sound over and over like a cassette recorder.

Thank you for all friends spotlight.

Avatar Spotlight
Carlos Espinoza
said on July 17, 2013

I love these stories, every day I have improved my English thanks to you.. I want to learn English perfectly, so, I listen your programs every day. Thank you so much.

From Venezuela.

Avatar Spotlight
said on August 11, 2014

Along time ago, I had experience the earworm, I always hear a voice singing a song in my head, sometime it made me trouble, discomfortable with this singing. And then I do not know when it goes away. I think the earworm come when we concentrate in a song too much, repeat this song many times and it will go away when we concentrate in another thing. And I think when we have earworm that mean our brain is exaushted. Need to rest.

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said on August 11, 2014

Earworm, i have experience 7 days a week, 30 days a month. it’s becom my behaviour. Because i learn English by listening. i also improve my listeing and speaking skills. so i usually listen a news many time a day, listen and repeat. i love it.

Avatar Spotlight
said on August 11, 2014

It’s common thing for every man and woman,I think.for me every experience is my own thing from the past.songs or another material things are always something what will be our memories…it will be because it is life.sometimes it’s happy ...sometimes it’s sad…but it’s normal.

Avatar Spotlight
said on August 11, 2014

And thank you very much for interesting topic! You are always perfect!

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Mss Flamboyant
said on August 12, 2014

To me the best way to overcome this situation is that I will sing loud follow this song. Then It is so exciting and happy.

Avatar Spotlight
said on August 14, 2014

Where is my earworm. Lol =)))
Anyway, thank you so much.

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said on August 15, 2014

When it happends the disputes between Vietnam & China on the sea, I think my earworm was a song : Where a far islands.

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said on August 16, 2014

thank you so much,
I think that’s awesome if we have an earworm. Just because when we are stressed,or pressured , earworm can help us to overcome or make us comfortable

Avatar Spotlight
Jimmy Roberto Espinoza Mercado
said on August 16, 2014

Hi friends! Although the earworm is too common, people usually do not talk about it. I do not experience earworm too frequenly, but the last two times I did it with songs which I did not already listen long ago, I used to listen them at those times of high school, and like many others, they please me very much, but these melodies have the particularity to have stayed in my mind for a long time. The first earworm was about a song that the driver played on his radio when he took us to class. The last one was about a song that a radio station used to play every days in order to start its broacasting. Both earworms come from memories of events that happened in the morning, at the same time of the day when each earworm happened. So far I do not annoy me the earworms. Thank you very moch!

Avatar Spotlight
said on October 07, 2014

I have earworms very rarely. I do not listen songs now. It is not interesting for me. Films are more interesting for me.

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said on April 04, 2015

Every song I listen to would become earworms to me. At the moment I m listening to a song then I would follow up to sing the song till the end. I m a musician actually.

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Johanna Castillo
said on March 16, 2016

I usually have earwarms mostly when I’m trying o learn a song in aguitrar,
I ‘m no native speaker of English, but I like so much singing in english because the rhythm of music is more harmonious than in spanish lenguage. And when I practice long hours a song I could remember that song all day, perhaps even more.

Recently I was playing on my guitrar “A horse with no name” by “America ” and for the rhythm and the lyric lately remember this phase very frecuently “I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name I felt good to be out of the rain ” la la la la la la ...

In my opinion songs are a good method to remember and practice english precisely for the repetition.

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on March 20, 2016

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To: Spotlight
Subject: answer to the question above
Date: Sunday 20, March 2016.
São Paulo SP Brazil

Dear Robin Basselin, Ryan Geertsma, and Courtney Schutt:

Once more, I want to thank you about more one excellent matter that you have shown for us.
Yes, I do. I have a beautiful music in my mind that I cannot forget it. This music is called HAVE YOU EVER SEEN THE RAIN? I heard it in the first time when our Dear American singer Rod Stewart came to Brazil and sang this music and other beautiful musics from him. The music show was in RIO DE JANEIRO CITY I could not go to see but I saw it on television (TV GLOBO). It was great! Therefore, this is my earworm. I cannot forget this beautiful song even when I am at work at the hospital.

Your regards,
Severino Ramos


Avatar Spotlight
Carlos Dóro
said on August 23, 2016

when a piece of a song starts playing in my brain I try to sing it, but if I’m in an environment that can not sing I try to occupy my mind with other thoughts, such as resorting to google play in my Smarth phone and start reading a book so this way I occupy my brain with another activity and earworm disappears at that time.

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Thanh Huyen Tran
said on June 28, 2018

I heard Voice 5 pronounced incorrectly in the paragraph “Just by reading the word faith, my mind went down a path”. She pronounced “wents” instead of “went”.