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Why you can't get 'Call Me Maybe' out of your head

Reuters file photo

Singer Carly Rae Jepsen just met you. And this is crazy. But here she is singing at the MuchMusic Video Awards in Toronto on Sunday, so call her, maybe?

It seems impossible to hide from Carly Rae Jepsen's “Call Me Maybe.” Someone auto-tuned videos of President Obama so he performs it; The Roots and Jimmy Fallon played it with toy musical instruments; the Harvard baseball team, the Southern Methodist University women’s rowing team, and the Miami Dolphin cheerleaders all danced to the ditty; and the bubble gum pop song has taken over all the airwaves.

And maybe your brainwaves -- does it seem like “Call Me Maybe” is on repeat in your head? You’re not alone; you have an earworm. Earworms, or involuntary imagery of music, burrow their way into the subconscious, making a home in the brain. And "Call Me Maybe" is arguably the earwormiest song in recent memory. 

“Earworms is a colloquial name for a phenomena in music psychology—an experience when you get a song or a piece of song such as chorus [stuck in your head] without a willing attempt to experience a musical memory,” says Lassi A. Liikkanen, who published two papers about earworms recently in the journals Psychology of Music and Musicae Scientiae.   

People frequently experience earworms after hearing a new songs and recognizing a few snippets of lyrics and melody.  

“Involuntary imagery of music is based on our skill to remember music, but for some reason feels out of control. But is perfectly normal,” explains, Liikkanen, a researcher at Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT in Finland.

Songs such as “Call Me Maybe” or fun's “We Are Young” seem to pop into our brains against our will. Seeing an album cover or recalling a memory associated with a song can induce an earworm. Liikkanen, who surveyed more than 12,000 Finish Internet users about earworms, found that nearly 90 percent of people experience involuntary imagery of music.

“Some times these involuntary music experiences are tied to a life experience and it is congruent with mood,” he says. “Even if you haven’t heard a song for weeks, months, decades [hearing the song sparks] a key memory.”

He discovered that women catch earworms more than men and younger generations have the bug more frequently than older folks. While there is little evidence about why these differences occur, Liikkanen has a few theories.

Women might be more attuned to their mental lives, possibly connecting songs with meaningful moments more frequently. When it comes to earworms and older people, it seems that older folks listen to music less and might not have as great of memory retention as they once had.

In general, people who play or write music hear earworms more than those simple music listeners.

“A lot of the great composers claim they were hearing the music in their heads … it happens with the not so [great] composers,” Liikkanen says. While the more musical education one has the more involuntary imagery of music occurs at some point it evens out—people with the highest levels of music education reported fewer recurrent earworms.

Those with a form of OCD might hear earworms an excessive amount and people suffering auditory hallucinations sometimes also hear snippets of songs repeatedly. In these cases, Liikkanen says people should consult a psychiatrist for treatment.

“People consider [earworms] entertaining and fun occasions when they emerge,” he says. “Music is wonderfully complicated in human psychology.”  

Dying to extract "Call Me Maybe" from your brain? It's not so simple. Liikkanen suggests avoiding all music and cues connected with the song. Cues can be as seemingly insignificant as hearing the title of the song or the artist's name -- so you'll need a moratorium on anything beginning with the words "call me." Good luck with that. 

You can enable the Earworm Clinic application on Facebook to learn more about your earworms and provide information for Liikkanen. 

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