According to a centuries-old rumour, Mozart’s kids would wind him up by starting a familiar melody on the family piano…and then not finishing it. This would piss off the genius composer so much that he’d run downstairs and finish the melody himself: otherwise it would develop into a full blown earworm.
An earworm is a colloquial way of saying the more technical term: musical imagery repetition. It’s what happens when a song gets stuck in your head and won’t remove itself.
More recent examples of earworms have been Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” while some all-time classic earworms have included The Knack’s “My Sharona” and even Beethoven’s 5th. According to some studies, 98% of the human population has experienced them at some time. The majority of earworm culprits (73%) involve music with lyrics, while only a scant 7.7% of earworms are instrumental. Such as the infamous iPhone marimba ringtone. You’re welcome.
So we’ve established what they are. But how do you get rid of one? What then? How, pray tell, do you get that motherf**king song from Frozen out of your brain? The answer may surprise you.
What an earmworm is to your brain — to put it conceptually — is a challenge. One of the best ways to get an earworm out of your head is to give your brain an equal or greater challenge, such as reading a novel or even going for a jog.
Some people even recommend that you simply find another earworm to stick in your head. This might seem contradictory, but in an entirely unscientific study that I just did right now at my desk with absolutely no scientist anywhere near me, the second song cancels out the first and doesn’t remain stuck for too long.
Of course, there’s one horror story related to earworms: Jean Harris, who murdered her lover Herman Tarnower in 1980, reported to have the classic film-noir song “Put The Blame On Mame” stuck in her head for a staggering 34 years, according to sources. She apparently got so used to it that she grew to believe that it was her “secret weapon.” When she killed Tarnower, the song apparently went away.
So, unless you want to end up like Jean Harris, maybe don’t put “Let It Go” on repeat, eh?