Monday, April 23, 2012

Too catchy a tune? (Earworms revisited)

A spontaneously popping up melody?
It’s a well-known phenomenon in the media: once you've contributed to a radio or tv program on a compelling, general interest question, journalists will return to you with the same question over and over again, and, basically, wanting you to redo the same answer.

It happened to me a few years ago when I was asked to contribute to a Dutch TV item on the question why some melodies stick in your mind. My first answer was: we do not know. Simply because if we knew, an ‘earworm’-generating computer program would exist that can generate melodies that are guaranteed to stick in people’s mind for days. In this case I’m sure nobody would mind.

But unfortunately for science, now —five years later— we still do not know what is the nature of this phenomenon.

What we do know —mainly from questionnaire-style research— is that most people suffer from the ‘earworm’ phenomenon (also referred to as brainworm, cognitive itch, or musical imagery repetition), females slightly more than males. And that the tunes that spontaneously pop-up in one’s mind are generally not the most striking compositions. Actually, they are commonly reported as being simply irritating.

Why does this happen? And what does it tells us about our cognition? And why does it happen with music, and significantly less with text or images? What is in the musical structure of that particular fragment that makes it spontaneously pop-up from memory?

We simply do not know.

Vicky Williamson
Luckily some researchers have been successful in convincing their funding agencies that these are interesting and pressing questions. A recent example is Vicky Williamson, who, in collaboration with Lauren Stewart from Goldsmiths, University of London, succeeded in securing a grant to seriously look into this phenomenon. See a recent radio interview below. And if you are interested in contributing to their research: they still look for PhD candidates.

(Alternative link.)

N.B. In Amsterdam we will start investigating earworms as well, in a project named COGITCH* — a collaboration between Utrecht University, University of Amsterdam, Sound & Vision, Radio 5 and Meertens Institute. We will be developing a web-based environment, so-called ITCH environment (Identification, Tagging and Characterization of Hooks) to obtain large amounts of judgments from the lay audience on what makes a fragment of music easy recognizable and/or stick in one’s mind. More on this later this year.

* A cognitive itch refers to an ‘earworm’, a fragment of music that you can’t get out of your head.

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H. (2010). Lure(d) into listening: The potential of cognition-based music information retrieval. Empirical Musicology Review, 5(4), 121-126.


  1. Certainly an interesting subject. I think the perfect-ear-worm machine is not a valid idea though. I think they are a combination of musical elements and personal contextual experience. In my experience, recency and repetition of listening are more significant than any particular musical structure.

  2. No worry: We're not planning to make an earworm machine (if possible at all). The researchers mentioned all plan empirical work to see for which theories we can find actual support. We have been speculating about this topic for too long now.

  3. I understood that nobody is building such a machine. By "not valid" I meant that I believe it is impossible. I believe that even joking about the idea of such a machine is a misunderstanding of the phenomena because I believe the features of the external stimuli are not the primary factor here.

  4. Still, its a believe. And believes and/or hypotheses need testing. And that's what's being proposed here :-)