How earworms, those annoying musical fragments that repeat in our heads, may trigger memories and calming emotions

the brain, a child on the autism spectrum, brushing teeth, memory aid

In the dark corners of the internet hides a playlist of some of the most torturous, addictive music known to man. That’s right, Spotify, SoundCloud and Apple Music all have playlists of Baby Shark remixes. Do do, do do, do do, do.

Would you walk 500 miles to get away from that tune? Will your poker face crack the 1,000th time it plays in your head? Does it remind you of somebody that you used to know? Do you value the sound of silence?

You aren’t alone. These so-called earworms – gross – are annoying, but useful; new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in June helps illuminate the exact function these loops play.

“We can hear just a fragment of a piece of music and it can take us back. How does that happen?” said Petr Janata, a researcher at the University of California, Davis.

Music therapists and marketers take advantage of music’s ability to trigger memory. An amateur musician, Janata says earworms help your brain encode and parse through daily memories and sensations that may not have anything to do with the exact moment you first heard the tune.

As it plays over and over in your head, you may come to associate memories or sensations different from those you experienced on first listening.

These musical fragments become a kind of sorting mechanism that triggers clearer recall at a later date, especially when the tune plays once more, according to the study, titled “Spontaneous mental replay of music improves memory for incidentally associated event knowledge.”

Janata and co-author Benjamin Kubit aren’t the first to study earworms, also known as involuntary musical imagery, or INMI. Previous research has probed the characteristics of songs that are likely to become earworms, whether certain personality types are more prone to the phenomenon and whether listening to unfamiliar catchy music interferes with concentration. (Spoiler: of course it does.)

In general, musicians and scientists have concluded that faster music with simple, repetitive melodies and harmonies are more likely to loop in the brain.

“Short melodic phrases combined with a perfect harmonic progression are perfect for this,” said Pittsburgh composer Nancy Galbraith, whose music is regularly performed by ensembles around the city and country.

Galbraith differentiates between musical “hooks”, a fragment designed to catch the ear, and earworms. Many earworms come from song hooks, but not all hooks become earworms. She pointed to the hit musical Hamilton as a recent example of a work filled with effective hooks, many of which evolved into earworms.

My Shot still pops into Galbraith’s head from time to time, she said, along with the theme song from the Netflix show House of Cards.

the brain, a child on the autism spectrum, brushing teeth, memory aid

Petr Janata is a researcher at the University of California, Davis.

“Tchaikovsky was a really great hook writer, but we don’t really call them that in classical music,” she said. “Personally I don’t associate them with anything specific. It’s more of an emotion or sensation.”

Music presenters and advertisers already capitalise on music’s ability to conjure specific emotions or sensations. Rishi Bahl, musician, founder of Pittsburgh’s pop/punk/alternative Four Chord Music Festival and a professor of marketing at La Roche University, said there’s been an upsurge in nostalgia for bygone musical eras in recent years, and music presenters are actively moulding new talent to comply.

This can often involve pushing songwriters to create hooks or earworms reminiscent of past styles.

the brain, a child on the autism spectrum, brushing teeth, memory aid

Tchaikovsky was a master of creating audio ‘hooks’. Photo: Bettmann Archive

“It’s becoming more pervasive,” he said. “In the end, record labels are marketers at heart. It’s not about distribution today thanks to streaming. It’s about marketing.”

Hooks and Billboard-charting hits tend to have similarly pop-like elements, and leaning too far into the science behind those elements can create a homogeneity in sound and style that can seem artistically bereft. (“Man, it’s depressing,” Bahl said.)

Popular music has always had this issue to an extent. Different genres still rely on largely the same simple chord progressions and melodic shapes. The uniqueness comes from the subtle changes in vibe and vibrato and instrumentation.

Music therapists already use music’s ability to trigger a range of emotional states with their patients. According to Brittany Meyer, a neurologic music therapist at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, music’s ability to activate multiple parts of the brain simultaneously makes it a useful tool for rebuilding and strengthening pathways in the brain.

“Repetition is really great for creating earworms,” Meyer said. “And we know that music is great for both encoding and retrieving memories.”

She explained that music can trigger reaction in the hippocampus, which plays a role in learning and memory, and the amygdala, which is involved in experiencing emotions. So listening to the same music at a later date can trigger the same emotions.

the brain, a child on the autism spectrum, brushing teeth, memory aid

Earworms can even help with getting an unwilling child to brush their teeth. Photo: Shutterstock

Meyer also said that a patient’s prior associations with a tune are more important than the inherent characteristics of the tune itself. For example, she cited an experience working with a child on the autism spectrum who didn’t want to brush his teeth. Meyer made up a song about brushing teeth to the tune of a song he liked. Then his mother could sing with him every night, which helped him remember to brush his teeth.

Janata wonders how long it will be before this research is used in a more targeted way. Many people above a certain age can recall a few jingles from their childhoods and the products they advertised, and some educators use songs or tunes to help memorise information.

But the possibilities don’t stop there. Janata’s recent study found that music can function as a targeted memory aid. That means learning names or new faces or places could one day be paired with an individual tune, almost like a personalised musical tag.

Janata is exploring that idea in his research and attempting to observe how the brain responds to musical stimuli and earworms using neural imaging technology.

“It raises the question: can this be deployed in a targeted way, taking novel pieces of music [and] pairing earworms with must-be-remembered information? Could this serve as a memory aid?”

“That’s what our current experiments are trying to show and see whether that’s possible.”

News Related

OTHER NEWS

Does My Mask Protect Me if Nobody Else Is Wearing One?

Masks work best when everyone in the room has one on, but you’ll still benefit from masking up even when those around you aren’t. (Aileen Son for The New York ... Read more »

Ant Group microcredit service Huabei feeds vast consumer data to China's central bank

Ant Group, operator of the world’s largest electronic payment platform, has started to feed its vast trove of consumer credit information to a database run by China’s central bank, heralding ... Read more »

Greggs unveil new Autumn menu including Vegan Bacon and Sausage Breakfast Rolls

Calling all Greggs fanatics as they’ve just launched their new autumn menu – with a plethora of treats that we can’t wait to get our hands on. Yes there are ... Read more »

Covid vaccines are on the way for younger children. Here's why they're different

Vaccine maker Pfizer said Monday tests have shown its Covid-19 vaccine works well in children ages 5 to 11. © Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images/FILE A syringe is filled with a ... Read more »

China Evergrande ‘resolves' interest payment due on smaller of two bonds as it fights to avert debt default

China Evergrande Group said it has resolved the interest payment due on a yuan-denominated onshore bond, taking an unexpected step that potentially helps avert a default that could spill over ... Read more »

Eczema could be linked to poorly regulated sex hormones. Itching to know more?

Suffering from any skin disorder is much harder than you may think, and the challenges increase manifold when it’s something like eczema. Also known as atopic dermatitis, this condition affects ... Read more »

Sunny Leone runs on treadmill and shares secret to fit body in mid-week gym post

When actor and model Sunny Leone is not serving fashion moments or entertaining her fans with funny videos on social media, she hits the gym to work on her body ... Read more »

Häagen-Dazs launches two new cocktail-inspired ice creams - and they look delicious

Winter is on its way, which means it’s time to ditch the sorbets in the freezer and make room for Häagen-Dazs ’ brand new boozy flavours. Introducing Häagen-Dazs ’ brand-new ... Read more »

Muse: This is not just food, it's stories on a plate

© Provided by The Independent Walking into Muse by Tom Aikens, I felt a serious sense of kinship with Alice, after she fell down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland. ... Read more »

From drink, drugs and suicide attempts to being happier and healthier than ever: how one woman found what her soul needed, and is helping others do the same

Hongkonger Gwen Siu used to live a busy, fast-paced lifestyle, working in some of the city’s most dynamic restaurants and clubs – often putting in 14- to 16-hour days. She ... Read more »

The Court of Appeals has identified the helper cleaner as a temporary worker

House cleaners hired through the app Helpling are temporary workers and must be given paid sick leave and compensation if they lose their jobs, Amsterdam appealed to court on Tuesday. ... Read more »

This One Drink Provides the Same Heart Benefits as Wine, New Study Says

© Provided by Eat This, Not That! white red wine While you’ve likely heard that wine could be good for your health, you may want to put that glass of ... Read more »

Americans are using alcohol to cope with COVID pandemic: Nearly 1 in 5 report 'heavy drinking' in new survey

About 17% of respondents reported “heavy drinking” in the past 30 days, according to the survey commissioned by Alkermes, an Ireland-based biopharmaceutical company. U.S. dietary guidelines recommend no more than ... Read more »

A Royal itinerary: Harry and Meghan heading to NY for Global Citizen Live

© Provided by The South African Meghan Markle and Prince Harry land a cover spot on Time Magazine Image via Twitter @time Meghan Markle and Prince Harry are heading to New York City ... Read more »

Got Johnson & Johnson? A 2nd shot provides excellent protection, studies show

© Provided by CapeTalk One shot of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine seems to be less effective than two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine Adding a second shot six months ... Read more »

Best pie shops named at the latest British Pie Awards - does your local make the list?

Britons looking for the best pies around the country now have some pointers thanks to the British Pie Awards. Ranking the best pies in 23 classes, the Awards are quite ... Read more »

NYDA: Vaccination is the way out of the COVID-19 pandemic

© Abigail Javier/Eyewitness News Vaccinator at Moses Mabinde stadium in KwaZulu-Natal for COVID-19 vaccinations. CAPE TOWN – The National Youth Development Agency on Tuesday said it’s critical for young people ... Read more »

US to send additional 500 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to foreign nations in 2022

The United States is set to significantly increase the amount of Covid-19 vaccines it will ship to foreign nations beginning in 2022 in an effort to end the pandemic worldwide, ... Read more »

BRIEF-Corvus Pharmaceuticals Updates On Mupadolimab Programs In Oncology And Infectious Disease

Sept 22 (Reuters) – Corvus Pharmaceuticals Inc: * CORVUS PHARMACEUTICALS PROVIDES UPDATES ON MUPADOLIMAB (ANTI-CD73) PROGRAMS IN ONCOLOGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASE * CORVUS PHARMACEUTICALS INC – COVID-19 STUDY IMMUNE RESPONSE ... Read more »

Where to Invest $100 Right Now

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need thousands of dollars to get started on the stock market. There are plenty of excellent stocks you can buy for $100 per share ... Read more »

Are cloth masks good enough to face the delta variant?

© Provided by Quartz A commuter wears a mask under public safety signage as cases of the infectious coronavirus Delta variant continue to rise in New York City, New York ... Read more »

'Sex and the City' Star Willie Garson Has Died Aged 57

Actor Willie Garson, known for his cult role as Stanford Blatch on Sex and the City, as well as Mozzie on White Collar, has died aged just 57. © James ... Read more »

September Sell-Off: Best Stocks to Buy Now

The stock market was going strong this year — until just recently. A sell-off is happening. And you might be wondering why. Some investors are simply locking in gains. But ... Read more »

Care for kidney disease plummeted in the pandemic

The number of patient visits for chronic kidney care plummeted by more than 26% in the early months of the pandemic, according to new data from the nation's largest insurer, ... Read more »

How the definition of success has changed in COVID fight

In the early days of the pandemic, experts kept a close watch on the number of new cases — one of the key metrics signaling success or failure of public ... Read more »

U.S. parents weigh risks, benefits as COVID-19 vaccine for kids nears approval

FILE PHOTO: First day of New York City schools By Joseph Ax and Sharon Bernstein (Reuters) – In an ideal world, Leah Smithers said she could afford to wait for ... Read more »

Pfizer announces 500M more vaccines to lower-income countries; California has lowest virus transmission in US: COVID-19 updates

California is now the state with the lowest transmission of COVID-19 in the country, according to data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the only ... Read more »

West Nile virus cases are rising, and experts say 'people have to protect themselves'

With the COVID-19 pandemic still affecting much of the United States and health experts advising people get their flu shots, there’s another illness people need to worry about — West ... Read more »

Smaller COVID vaccine doses may protect children as well as full doses in adults: Pfizer

Pfizer just released its first safety data about COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5 to 11, reassuring parents that a safe and effective vaccine soon could be available for those ... Read more »

After Bharti Singh, Remo D'Souza's wife Lizelle undergoes drastic weight loss. Watch video

After Bharti Singh, Remo D’Souza’s wife Lizelle has also lost a lot of weight. Choreographer-director Remo D’Souza is a proud husband as his wife, Lizelle D’Souza, has lost oodles of ... Read more »

When to expect decision on COVID-19 vaccine boosters

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to greenlight Pfizer booster shots Wednesday for seniors and other high-risk Americans, a step that would pave the way for third doses ... Read more »

Brazil's health minister tests positive for Covid at U.N. General Assembly in NYC

President Jair Bolsonaro, a vaccine skeptic, defied U.N. rules that asked all those attending the assembly to be vaccinated. Read more »

Quality Street reveals first white chocolate in 85-year history

© Provided by The Independent Quality Street has introduced a new flavour to its popular selection tin in time for Christmas, and it is the brand’s first ever white chocolate ... Read more »

Great British Bake Off eliminates first baker of 2021 series -Spoiler Warning!

© Channel 4 Great British Bake Off is back for another series, with the contestants baking for Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith. Who will be the first to leave the ... Read more »

Sticker by NCT 127 review: K-pop LP shows rambunctious boy band's maturity and gives them all a chance to shine

Fronted by a single of the same name, the 11-track album Sticker by K-pop group NCT 127 arrived on September 17, shortly after their fifth anniversary, and shows what they’ve ... Read more »

J&J vaccine latest: One dose just might not be enough

© Provided by The South African The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is more effective when given as a two-dose regime, according to new data released by the company on ... Read more »

China sees slower R&D growth in 2020 as government spending on science and technology fell amid the Covid-19 pandemic

Research and development spending made up a record 2.4 per cent of China’s economy in 2020, according to government statistics, moving closer to levels of R&D intensity in other advanced ... Read more »

China's stock markets set record as daily turnover exceeds 1 trillion yuan for 44th day

China’s stock markets ushered in a milestone after shares worth more than 1 trillion yuan (US$154.6 billion) changed hands on the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges for the 44th consecutive day ... Read more »