For Kristina Riggle, a 35-year-old novelist from Kentwood, Mich., it’s “Come Sail Away”. But when the song starts looping over and over in her head, it’s not always Styx that’s singing it.
“There was an episode on South Park where Cartman sings it so I’ll hear it not only as Styx, but as Cartman,” she says. “It adds another level of irritation to the whole experience.”
Dealing with an “earworm” – a song that eats its way into your brain and refuses to budge for minutes or hours or days – can be irritating, but it’s never been the focus of much study until researchers at the University of Montreal decided to look at obsessive melodies.
Some songs are “stickier” than others, researchers say.
“Repetitive songs will be more likely to get stuck, as well as songs without really profound words,” says Sylvie Hebert, professor at the University of Montreal School of Speech Therapy and Audiology. “Lots of la-la-las and doopity-doopity-dahs. Also, the songs that get stuck are very familiar songs. And it’s usually the chorus that gets stuck.”
The tenacious nature of simple songs with sappy lyrics may explain why so many parents still have the dreaded Barney song looping around in their brain. Or in the case of Riggle, the mother of two who’s haunted by “Come Sail Away,” some mindless Backyardigans beat.
“My kids went through a phase where we listened to a Backyardigans CD from the library,” she says. “It’s cute the first five or six times but then you just want to rip your hair out.”
Earworms usually happen when people are in a positive emotional state and participating in non-intellectual activities, like walking, researchers say. And musicians’ earworm usually last longer (although on the plus side, they may be looping a passage by Bach or Chopin as opposed to Bad Romance or “It’s A Small World, After All”).
Researchers did an online survey of French-speaking participants and came up with a list of the top pop songs that refuse to pop off. (Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” is right near the top and The Muppets' "Manamana" also makes this. ). Other obsessive melodies can be found here.
As for getting rid of earworms, Hebert says her subjects sometimes jettisoned the tunes by concentrating on something else. Or by infecting someone else.
“Some said they would sing the song to somebody else,” she says. “It wasn’t very efficient, but people said they did that.”
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