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‘I Can’t Get That Song Out of My Head’

Posted 4/11/2016 by UHBlog

If daily occurrences – whether they’re “earworms” or compulsive behaviors – become distractions, we can help.

I Can't Get That Song Out of My Head

You can’t “unhear” the song, “It’s a Small World,” after riding a certain attraction at Disney World. Or, Carly Rae Jepsen’s tune, “Call Me Maybe,” continues to play on a loop in your head although it’s been hours since you heard it on the radio.

You’ve been stricken with an “earworm,” also known as involuntary musical imagery or musical imagery repetition.

“A certain hook of a song that lasts 10 to 15 seconds has been written and played in such a way that the brain finds it intriguing,” says vascular neurologist Michael DeGeorgia, MD, director of the Center for Music and Medicine at University Hospitals Neurological Institute. “Our brain likes when we can follow a set of rules and predict what happens next, so we like the predictability of musical patterns. We really like when it takes a slight deviation and comes back to safe ground. So, musical detours that go too far off the well-known path make us uncomfortable, but those that are just a little different and don’t follow the same old pattern, we really, really like.”

Purely instrumental snippets are less likely than tunes with words to develop into earworms. That’s because memory is bihemispheric. Melodic processing (instrumental music) occurs in the right lobe of the brain, while songs involving language (lyrics) are processed in the left lobe.

“When a song is stuck in your mind, your entire brain is being activated for at least 15 seconds,” Dr. DeGeorgia says.

Some researchers link earworms to evolution. Modern humans have been around for 200,000 years, but written language dates back just 5,000 years. Experts hypothesize early humans used singing to communicate with each other and to remember complex information.

“Hearing music may tap into long-standing circuits that have been around for thousands and thousands of years,” he says.

According to Dr. DeGeorgia, earworms may occur more frequently now than in the early days of rock and roll when songs were written to convey a message.

“Today, the industry is focused on coming up with two or three snippets of a melody around which to build songs,” says Dr. DeGeorgia, who plays drums in a band called The Codes. “The songs are built in a scientific way to grab people’s attention, get them to listen longer and hook them. That’s because a few seconds is as long as people allow a song to play on the radio before flipping to another station.”

Earworms don’t affect everyone. Folks who are musically trained, have obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD tendencies are more susceptible. Women are slightly more likely to develop earworms than men and females’ earworms typically last longer. Not surprisingly, earworms occur more frequently in people who are bothered by them – and, thus, fixate on them – than in individuals who aren’t as annoyed by earworms.

Dr. DeGeorgia says there are ways to combat earworms, such as:

  1. Avoid focusing on the song. The more you think about it, the more you’re going to “hear” it.
  2. Target your working memory by concentrating on Sudoku puzzles or a moderately difficult task.
  3. Think about another song. But be aware: You run the risk of that tune sticking in your head.

Occasional earworms aren’t problematic for most people, in the same way an OCD tendency to align socks in a drawer by color is harmless. But, if persistent earworms begin intruding in your daily activities and the above strategies don’t provide relief, it may be time to see your doctor. In extreme cases, medications similar to those used for OCD may minimize or eliminate earworms.

Michael DeGeorgia, MD is vascular neurologist and the director of the Neurocritical Care Center and Center for Music and Medicine at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. DeGeorgia or any other University Hospitals doctor online.

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