The Situationist

The Science of Songs Stuck in Your Head

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 12, 2007

Woman on Bus

Ever hear a song play over and over again in your mind, and be unable to do anything about it? It happens to all of us. Monica Hesse of the Washington Post interviews perhaps the best person to explain why it happens: record producer turned neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, the Bell Chair in the Psychology of Electronic Communication of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition, and Expertise in the Department of Psychology at McGill University. Levitin is the author of the new book, “This is Your Brain on Music,” and he shares his thoughts on why music can be “stuck” in our heads. We excerpt a portion of the interview below.

* * *

Q: In your book you say music might be an evolutionary asset.

Levitin: “Darwin thought the function of music was to attract members of the opposite sex. … A man who can dance for hours on end, always varying the steps – that shows great physical stamina and mental flexibility. Women could be subliminally thinking, ‘This guy is clever. This guy could bring home a bison.’ ”

Q: And now, in our bison-protected era?

Levitin: “Look at Mick Jagger. There’s an ancient genetic echo that musicians are attractive. … In one study women were asked to rate various fictional potential mates. The guys were either creative or not creative, rich or not rich. When women were at their most fertile, they wanted to hook up with the creative guy. Other times, they wanted the rich guy. So if you’re passing on genes, you want the creative guy.”

Q: Now I have “Stars and Stripes Forever” stuck in my head. Explain that to me.

Levitin: “Scientists call songs that get stuck in your head “earworms,” after the German Ohrwurm. We don’t know a lot about how or why they happen – it’s hard to get funding to study this type of thing – but we know a little. Like, it tends not to be a whole song that gets stuck in your head, just 15-20 seconds of one, and it tends to be a simple song that even non-singers can hum without effort.”Woman Song

Q: Is there a cure?

Levitin: “Some people get earworms so bad that it interferes with their ability to sleep or work. For those people, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs can help. They relax the circuits. Then again, some people become musicians because they have earworms. Neil Young told me that he started writing songs because he couldn’t get rid of the tunes in his head.”

Q: Doesn’t learning everything about how our brains interact with music ruin the magic of the listening experience?

Levitin: “Like that famous Oz scene where the Wizard is revealed as a nebbish little man behind the curtain? For me it’s been the opposite. Every time I get a modicum of insight into mystery I’m overwhelmed by the intricacy and the beauty.”

Q: Where will you go next with your research?

Levitin: “My lab recently completed a study in which we found an area of the brain that responds to the silence in between symphony movements. It’s really a study about memory, and event segmentation and how we define beginnings and endings.”

* * *

For the rest of the interview, click here. For an examination of the connection between situationism and music, see Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s “Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation.” In their post, Hanson and McCann explore how the situation in which persons listen to acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell–either while he is disguised as a subway peddler or while performing normally at a symphony–enormously influences how they regard his music.  For another post exploring how our taste in music is situationally contingent, see “The Situation of Music.”

7 Responses to “The Science of Songs Stuck in Your Head”

  1. This reminds me of an Arthur C. Clarke story from his collection, “Tales from the White Hart.” The story, ‘The Ultimate Melody,’ is about a scientist who studies every piece of music known to man and how, when, where, etc it has been more or less popular, and he builds The Ultimate Melody.

    Warning: SPOILER

    In the end they find the scientist in a completely unresponsive state in his lab, wide awake and unreachable. They take him away and find out from his assistant that once he played the melody it essentially took over his earworm circuits and diverted all brainpower to this looping tune. Odd that his assistant didn’t suffer the same consequences… tuns out he was already deaf.

  2. […] and over again in your mind, and be unable to do anything about it? It happens to us all. Over at The Situationist they have an interview with the person who should be able to tell us […]

  3. Samantha said

    I am glad to learn that I am not the only person walking around campus with a song stuck in my head! It’s crazy that people actually research a topic such as this. I did not know that the music I listen to can have such an effect on my brain.

  4. Sam Drenner said

    I can’t believe people actually study why I have a song stuck in my head. I hope they can find a way to get Vannilla Ice out of my head cause I’ve been humming it for a week!! I’m glad that I’m not the only person walking around on campus with a song stuck in my head!

  5. It's only me said

    And the winner is for the song always stuck in my head at the most random times: The Manama Song

    I’d like to see you try to get it out of your head…..

    Manama na bup beepy deepy. Manama na bup beepy dee. Manama na bup beepy deepy bah deepy bah deepy deepy deepy deepy da da deepy deep.

  6. […]  1. […]

  7. Wayne said

    My girlfriend woke up one night, abruptly, then, she says a thought jumped into her head and kept going over and over again in her mind. By all accounts it wasn,t very nice at all, it upset her greatly and she still suffers the memories of that night to this day(over one year).
    In reference to this I remember two programmes, :- the first was about a climber who fell into a cravass during a mountain ascent, after climbing his way out and dragging himself to some sort of relative safety he bagan to have the song “brown girl in the ring” by Bony M. playing over and over again in his head.
    The other programme is on at the moment over here in England..”Its alone in the wild” one guy spending 3months in the wilds of Canada ALONE ! he’s had occasion to note that he had Queen music looping in his head…

    Now I firmly believe that there is a psychological Term for this, and I would ask anyone out there who knows, PLEASE get in touch with me. So I can help understand and hopefully help my girlfriend to fully recover.


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