By Jack Sharkey, June 18, 2016

For the last 48 hours I’ve had Ugly Kid Joe’s I Hate Everything About You stuck in my head.

Do Do Do Doooooo

Do Do Do Do

Er Er Er Errrrrr

Er Er Er Er

I hate the rain and sunny weather

And I…hate the beach and mountains too

Looping and looping and looping.

This is a real shame because at my core I'm a real positive, accepting and non-judgmental guy, so having my brain ruled by this song for two days is distressing. I am always much happier when Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds is stuck in my head.

I had to find out about why this was happening to me.

And I get sick when I’m around…

I can't stand to be around…

I hate everything about you…

 

Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI)

Besides the fact that someone needs to explain to the medical community that involuntary is one word not two, there is a medical name for my condition – Involuntary Musical Imagery. My uneducated take on earworms has always been that my brain is unsatisfied when it hears a hook that doesn’t get completed – kind of like my brain is searching its records for the rest of the song and can’t find it. Good theory, but I needed help from an expert.

Not having an expert handy, I went to WebMD and typed in “song stuck in my head.” The search returned two bits about depression and one horrifying bit about losing stuff in body cavities or something.

Some say I got a bad attitude

But that don’t change the way I feel about you

And if you think this might be bringing me down

Look again ‘cause I ain’t wearing no frown

Except I was a little.

Realizing I was getting nowhere I Googled “earworm.”

I stumbled upon (googled upon?) the Earworm Project of the Music, Mind and Brain Group at the University of London. Apparently earworm comes from the German word orhwurm which refers to the condition of having a tune stuck in your head. I found this somewhat obvious and ironic but I can’t really explain why.

According to the Earworm Project, 90% of all people experience earworms at least once a week, but in spite of how common they are , 15% describe them as “disturbing” and around 33% describe them as “unpleasant.”

I get sick when I’m around

I can’t stand to be around

I hate everything about you

The study confirms what we all kind of know – earworms are generally harmless but “they can get in the way of what you are trying to do and they can stop you from thinking straight.” But science still doesn’t know what causes them and that’s where the Earworm Project comes in.

The researchers broke their study into four separate sub-projects:

#1 – What Features Do Typical Earworm Tunes Have In Common? 

Using “computational methods to analyze the structure of the songs” the researchers then compared those songs to control songs in attempt to find out exactly what makes a song stick in your head. So far the Project is able to predict with 80% accuracy whether or not a song has the potential to become an earworm. Read more.

#2 – What Do People Who Frequently Experience Earworms Have In Common?

An Earworm Project paper released to the 12th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in 2012 by PhD student Georgina Floridou found that earworms are a “highly idiosyncratic phenomenon,” meaning my earworm experience is different than yours. Also reported was that individuals who placed a higher importance on music in their lives were more likely to experience earworms than those who rated music as not very important. Read more.

#3 – What Causes Earworms?

After studying 3,000 reports from the public, the researchers found that there are multiple reasons for earworms and that simply hearing a song – although a contributor – is not the “only factor that leads to spontaneous musical imagery.” Mood and our level of attention are contributors, but interestingly, earworms are found to activate certain memories and memory areas (personal memories and basic knowledge memory). Read more.

#4 – What Cures Earworms?

The project found that most people tend to simply passively accept their earworms until they fade away on their own, but other helpful “cures” were also reported including engaging the earworms directly by listening to the tune aloud, consciously distracting themselves from the tune, or (most commonly) using another song to replace the earworm (whenever I try this the new tune invariably gets stuck). Read more.

 

It Still Ain’t Over

While the project is ongoing and data already collected is still being sorted out, it’s comforting to know that science is actively engaged in trying to help us with our out-of-control internal streaming devices. At this point I’d be happy with Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree creeping into my thoughts…

Oh, and by the way, for my research on this piece I listened to I Hate Everything About You like 15 times (can you say stack overload?). The song did eventually fade away, but listening on the EGG system on my desk, I also heard a piano riff I'd never heard in the 25 years or so I've been casually familiar with this song. Just sayin'.