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Our love/hate relationship with songs that get stuck in our heads.

Play Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and I bet an earworm wriggles its way into your brain. It’ll start innocently enough, a few snippets of the international chart-topping and impossibly infectious track on loop. But later that day, you might find yourself humming it as you prepare dinner. Wake up the next morning and it may still be burrowed deep, the refrain sliding into your consciousness without warning.

Also known as involuntary musical imagery (INMI), the experience of spontaneously recalling a tune and then getting it stuck in your head on repeat is a common one. Its prevalence lies in the myriad ways that we can catch one. “The most frequent trigger is recent exposure to the actual song,” says Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, a postdoctoral research assistant at Durham University’s department of music. “But we also often get songs in our heads that we haven’t heard in months or years due to memory associations, such as seeing a word that reminds us of the song lyrics, or a picture or person that reminds us of the particular song.”

According to Jakubowski, certain types of people are particularly prone to catching the musical bug. There are the music buffs who engage a lot with their passion, either by playing instruments or by spending their time at concerts. Unsurprisingly, this proximity means they tend to catch more earworms. But one’s susceptibility can also be personality-based, with “people who score highly on the personality traits of ‘openness to experience’ and ‘neuroticism,’ and people who have more obsessive-compulsive traits” also experiencing earworms at a higher frequency. While they can be distracting, Jakubowski is quick to debunk any suggestion that this phenomenon is always annoying. “Research has consistently shown that around two-thirds of earworm experiences are rated as emotionally pleasant or neutral,” she says. “When we do find an earworm annoying, this is often due to it being a song that we don’t like or it causing distractions when we need our full attention on a task requiring auditory resources.”

Popular songs are more likely to turn into earworms, as are newer releases. Tempo and melody count too: A song set at a faster speed with more generic melodic contours has a higher chance of getting stuck in our heads. In other words, we didn’t stand a chance when it came to “Happy.” You may as well follow Pharrell’s advice and clap along.

The word “earworm” is a direct translation of the German ohrwurm, which has been used in Germany since the late 1950s.

  • Words:
    Pip Usher
  • Photograph:
    Tigre Escobar
  • Words:
    Pip Usher
  • Photograph:
    Tigre Escobar

The word “earworm” is a direct translation of the German ohrwurm, which has been used in Germany since the late 1950s.

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