Earworms and the Effects of Hearing Music Multiple Times

Have you ever heard an annoyingly catchy song come on the radio and hate it right away?

The rhythm is off, the lyrics make no sense, you hate the genre… people can clearly be repulsed by music for many reasons. However, unfortunately for you, this song is a top hit and every station on the radio is playing it. Eventually, by week 3, you know every lyric, you find yourself singing along and jamming out, and you just can’t get this song out of your head. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as involuntary musical imagery (INMI) or an earworm, a pesky song or melody that gets stuck in your head and just won’t get out (Donvan, 2012).

You may now be wondering, “How on Earth do these earworms get in my head?!” One common theme to the majority of songs on the music market today, but especially to these earworm tunes, is repetition (Donvan, 2012). Some songs have repeating baselines or chords…

While these chords are beautiful and harmonic when played together in each of these songs, the respective melodies likely evoke a different emotion or memory. This has to do with the context-dependent memories (CDMs) formed, or in this case the music-dependent memories. CDM refers to a change in context or environment that causes some of the material learned in the original context to be forgotten (Balch & Lewis, 1996). Balch and Lewis explored the effects of changing aspects of a song and the effects on memory. Existing research had demonstrated that a different song reduced recall and memory, but Balch and Lewis found that even changing the tone or tempo resulted in reduced recall of words and memories. Thus, in the context of all these songs with the same four chords, you likely still have a different memory for each.

Williamson et al. (2012) also explored the cause of INMI tunes. However, they found the opposite of Balch and Lewis (1996), that specific events could trigger memories of songs. These sound associations could occur as a result of music by the same artist, environmental sounds, and rhythms from activities such as walking or finger tapping (Williamson et al., 2012). Overall though, individuals didn’t need to hear the tune in question but could simply encounter a stimulus that triggered retrieval of the song. Thus the reverse is also true: songs can trigger us to remember specific events, and these events/contexts can also trigger us to remember specific songs. Whether it’s being in the same context as you heard that annoying song, or hearing another song by the same artist, these earworms are persistent and can easily come back.


The other factor that can cause a song to manifest into an earworm is simplicity (Donvan, 2012). This often is related to repetition though as the simple jingles have repeating melodies or phrases. Beaman and Williams (2010) note that existing research suggests that only over-learned tunes are available to be “replayed”. However, Williamson et al. (2012) present evidence that while repeated exposure is a dominant theme within everyday INMI experiences, “over-learning” in the strict sense is not a prerequisite to an INMI episode. Take this Muppets video as an example:

After watching that video, if someone were to hum “do doo, do do do”, what would instantly pop into your head? Mahna Mahna. This may have been the first time you’ve heard this tune and yet, after only hearing a 2 minute, 36 second jingle, the earworm is already in your head.

It’s no secret that music is repetitive. There are also numerous media outlets associated with the onset of INMI episodes in everyday life: listening to the radio; attending music concerts; hearing ring tones; hearing other individuals humming or singing; and watching video media such as TV adverts, films, dedicated music channels and online music videos (Williamson et al., 2012). Yet despite the annoyance of earworms, we still are able to enjoy the music we listen to. Even if they may seem annoying at first, earworms are an essential part of music that is prevalent throughout the music industry and is enjoyable to us the listeners… even if it takes us some time to get used to the song.

For more information on earworms and why we love music repetition, watch:

For the longer version of Four Chords song, watch:

Question for future discussion: are musicians more susceptible to INMI?

Musicians are subjected to countless hours of physical and mental practice of their and other artist’s music. If only over-learned tunes are available to become INMI, it might also be expected that musicians would experience disproportionate INMI for their music.


Balch, W. R., & Lewis, B. S. (1996). Music-dependent memory: The roles of tempo change and mood mediation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 22(6), 1354.

Beaman, C., & Williams, T. (2010). Earworms (stuck song syndrome): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts. British Journal of Psychology, 101(4), 637–653.

Donvan, J. (Interviewer). (2012). Earworms: Why that Song Gets Stuck in Your Head [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from NPR Web site: http://www.npr.org/2012/03/12/148460545/why-that-song-gets-stuck-in-your-head

Liikkanen, L. A. (2008). Music in everymind: Commonality of involuntary musical imagery. In K. Miyazaki, Y. Hiragi, M. Adachi, Y. Nakajima, & M. Tsuzaki (Eds.), Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC10) (pp. 408–412). Retrieved 5 August 2011, from http://i.org.helsinki.fi/lassial/files/publications/080904-Music_in_everymind_pdf.pdf.

Williamson, V., & Jilka, S. (2014). Experiencing earworms: An interview study of involuntary musical imagery. Psychology of Music, 42(5), 653-670. doi:10.1177/0305735613483848

Williamson, V., Jilka, S., Fry, J., Finkel, S., Müllensiefen, D., & Stewart, L. (2012). How do ‘earworms’ start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery. Psychology of Music, 40(3), 259-284. doi:10.1177/0305735611418553

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