Tunes on the brain. Why do we get earworms?

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In 15th December’s New Scientist, there was a piece about earworms.  Earworms is a wonderful term for when we get a tune or jingle stuck in our head, and round and round it goes.  It comes from the German word, Ohrwurm: earworm.  The suggestion is that this is an evolutionary adaptation from the days before writing was developed and we had to learn things by word and mouth – rather like the Aboriginal dreamtime songs.  After all, writing is only about 5,000 years old and we have been kicking about for around about 2 million years. 1   We had to learn the best way to the Mars Bar bush somehow.

The writer, Mike Follows, quotes the findings of marketing professor, James Kellaris, Cincinnati, who says earworms are 15 – 30 secs long and we catch them from simple tunes that have something a bit unusual about them, citing America from West Side Story as a good example.

There, that should have got us all humming that one for some time to come yet…..  And it is depressingly true that I can remember advertising jingles that are a depressing number of years old.

Another trigger for catching an earworm is being emotionally aroused, according to Victoria Williamson of Goldsmiths University, London.  So try to stay super calm when the adverts come on or you’ll remember that tune all day tomorrow.

  1. These facts originated from Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University, Montreal. []

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