There’s a scientific reason why songs get stuck in your head

By | May 24, 2023

Kids News

How do you get a song or an ‘earworm’ out of your head? Picture: supplied

What do the songs Baby Shark*, MMMBop*, Party in the USA* and Barbie Girl* have in common? They all get stuck in our head and according to new research by the University of NSW’s Professor Emery Schubert, there is a scientific reason for this.

The phenomenon* of having a song stuck (or in this case wriggling around) in your head is known as an ‘earworm.”*

Mr Schubert says the experience is quite common with some research suggesting that 98 per cent of us have experienced an earworm – or involuntary musical imagery (INMI*), as it’s known in music terms.

Baby Shark is just one of those songs that gets stuck in your head. (Picture supplied)

And while past research into determining the cause has explored tempos, melodies and pitches of the music, Mr Schubert has put forward a different explanation as to why songs like Baby Shark get stuck in our heads.

“It appears there’s an essential characteristic* necessary for a song to roll out the earworms – the music itself must have some repetition* in it,” Mr Schubert says.

According to Mr Shubert, while it is the chorus that has been the most reported part of a song to become an earworm (because they are inherently the section of a song that is repeated the most), they may not be the only element of a track that we can blame.

“Earworms might not have anything to do with the musical features* at all … It largely doesn’t matter what the music is, as long as repetition is part of the music structure,” he says.

The other parts of this earworm equation are the conditions in which we listen to the song, including recency* and familiarity* with the music.

But the key to getting that earworm really stuck in our heads is what Mr Schubert calls a low-attentional state*: otherwise known as daydreaming.

female commuter daydreaming on busThe earworm loves it when we daydream. That’s when it really takes hold. Picture: iStock

“It’s sometimes referred to as mind wandering*, which is a state of relaxation. In other words, if you’re deeply engaged with the environment you are in, really concentrating on a task, then you won’t get an earworm,” Mr Schubert says.

“Inside your relaxed mind, you don’t have to follow the exact structure of the music. Your mind is free to wander wherever it likes, and the easiest place to go is the repeated fragment* and to simply repeat it.”

CD cover: Mmmbop the Collection by HansonYou may not know this band, but chances are you know this song. With its repetitive lyrics MMMBop was a huge hit for Hanson in 1997 and still gets plenty of radio airplay today. Image: Supplied

Other than being annoying, are there any cons to having an earworm? Mr Schubert doesn’t think so.

“It’s a bit of a misconception* that they’re a problem,” he says. “We’re starting to see more research suggesting many find getting an earworm to be quite pleasant and it is not an issue that needs solving.”

However, when the song stuck in your head is not one you like, this can of course present an issue.

“The earworm doesn’t care about enjoyment; it cares about how familiar the music is, how recently something similar was heard, and whether the music contains repetition,” Mr Schubert says.

Stylish brazilian girl with bubble gumResearch has shown that chewing gum may help to distract the ‘earworm’. Picture: istock

The good news is, there are some ways you can combat it.

“You may be able to wrap up an earworm by either finishing off the music, consciously* thinking of another piece of music, or by removing yourself from the triggers*, such as words or memories that relate to the music or lyrics,” Mr Schubert says.

He also says there has been some research that suggests chewing gum can help because it activates the same parts of the vocal mechanism* used for singing, which distracts* the earworm.


  • Baby Shark: a children’s song that has gone viral due to how catchy it is
  • MMMBop: released in 1997, this song by Hanson is still the band’s most successful single to date topping the charts all over world
  • Party in the USA: this song by Miley Cyrus has reached one billion streams on Spotify
  • Barbie Girl: Aqua’s smash hit topped the charts worldwide in ‘90s and remains one of the best-selling singles of all time
  • phenomenon: a remarkable person or thing or event
  • earworm: when a song gets stuck in your head and keeps repeating itself involuntarily
  • involuntary musical imagery (INMI): another term for earworm, which refers to the experience of having a song stuck in your head
  • characteristic: a quality belonging typically to a person, place, or thing and serving to identify them
  • repetition: when something is repeated or repeated patterns are present in music
  • musical features: different aspects of music such as tempos, melodies, and pitches
  • recency: how recently you have heard or been exposed to a particular song
  • familiarity: how well you know a song or how familiar it is to you
  • low-attentional state: a relaxed state of mind or daydreaming where you are not fully focused on your surroundings
  • fragment: a small part broken off or separated from something
  • misconception: a view or opinion that is incorrect because based on faulty thinking or understanding
  • mind wandering: when your thoughts drift away from the present moment and you start thinking about different things
  • consciously: in a way that shows that you are aware of something or noticing something
  • triggers: words or memories that remind you of a particular song or its lyrics
  • vocal mechanism: the parts of your throat and mouth involved in producing sound, such as when you sing
  • distracts: when something diverts your attention or takes your focus away from something else

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