Why do songs get stuck in my head?

24th September 2009

Asked by: KIERAN WHOOLEY, IRELAND

Songs that get stuck in our heads are called ‘earworms’ from the German ‘ohrworm’, or ‘involuntary musical imagery’, and can be very annoying. Nearly everyone gets them on occasion, but some people are much more susceptible than others. Earworms might exist because the brain never stops working. There are loops and patterns constantly swirling about. The auditory areas of the cortex, where musical information is retained, are no different and may be processing musical scraps or whole symphonies all day.

One theory describes songs as memes – bits of information that compete to use your brain to get themselves copied. Most fail, but some have what it takes to become an earworm, whether that’s an unforgettable catchphrase or a recursive structure such that you never reach a satisfying end point and stop.