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Why some songs turn into earworms — and 5 ways to get rid of them

Almost everyone experiences earworms, but why? A new study uncovers the musical elements behind the unwanted intrusion.
/ Source: TODAY

If you have a toddler, the words "Baby Shark" may be enough to make you cover your ears and run to the next room. The YouTube video of the song has nearly 2 billion views, and it's easy to understand why: The song is downright catchy. In fact, it's an earworm.

An earworm is a term used to describe a song that gets stuck in your ear or head — all you have to do is look at or think about the the lyrics and your brain can get stuck on repeat. Nearly everyone, 90 percent of people, experiences an earworm with some song at least once a week, according to a music psychologist.

A 2016 study analyzed the melodies of earworms and found common characteristics:

  • Upbeat tempos
  • Pitch patterns similar to other popular songs
  • Big up-and-down leaps in notes, such as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or "Moves Like Jagger"

“Our study wanted to look for the first time at whether actual features of the melodies themselves, such as their pitch and rhythm, could contribute to their ‘earworminess,’” Kelly Jakubowski, a music psychologist at Durham University in England, and an author of the study, wrote via email.

Jakubowski and researchers from Goldsmith, University of London asked 3,000 people to name songs earworms. Then the researchers created a list of the 100 most popular ones and examined their melodies to understand what makes them catchy.

“Music is more likely to be an earworm when it is occupying some spot between conventional … and novel,” said Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas, who was not involved in the study.

Earworms happen most often when the mind wanders, what researchers call spontaneous cognition. People can spend as much of 40 percent of their day with wandering thoughts.

While earworms typically only last a few minutes to a few hours, some people in the study reported having them for weeks, Jakubowski said.

There are at least five ways to banish them, according to Jakubowski and other experts:

  • Listen to the whole song. Enjoying the entire song often eliminates it from “being stuck on a loop” in your head.
  • Add some variety. Think of or listen to a song you like better, or the national anthem. "God Save the Queen" is said to cure earworms for the British.
  • Ignore it. “Try not to think about it and let it fade naturally on its own."
  • Chew gum. When people chewed gum right after listening to an especially catchy tune, they were less likely to be plagued by an earworm, a prior study in The Journal of Experimental Psychology found.
  • Do something engaging. If you’re in line in the grocery store with an earworm, use your phone, send an email or read an article, said Hellmuth Margulis.

“Earworms tend to appear in low-attentional state,” she said.

The top nine earworms, according to this study:

1. “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga

2. “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” by Kylie Minogue

3. “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey

4. “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye

5. “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5

6. “California Gurls” by Katy Perry

7. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

8. “Alejandro” by Lady Gaga

9. “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga

Now, try to ignore them. Or chew some gum.

This story was originally published in November 2016.