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Dissecting an Earworm

Many of us remember the dreaded school year where we learned we must complete that one course. You know, the course that makes girls squeamish and boys apprehensively excited.  No, not sex education… the class I speak of is the middle school biology class where each student dissects a creature to understand it’s anatomy. For me, the victim err…specimen was a frog. Even many years later, I clearly remember the vinegar-like smell of the preservative the frog had been packed in.  As I began to apply the scalpel along the puffed white belly … well, that’s a memory for another day.  Today, I invite you to join me in the virtual lab to conduct another dissection.  Rest assured however, you won’t need to touch a scalpel, wear a lab coat, or even risk feeling faint this time. The creature we will be dissecting is the lowly earworm.
In my previous post, I discussed the phenomenon of the earworm.  I know that you follow me on the numerous social media outlets and read my articles, right?  Of course you do.  But in case you missed my last blog post, you can read about it here but for now, let me give you a brief summary…

The Life of an Earworm

The lowly earworm is a term associated not with a creature at all but instead with the phenomenon of having a tune stuck in your mind.  Most of us have experienced this phenomenon and at times have almost gone bonkers trying to get it out of our mind.  I know you’re saying to yourself, “Ok, but what does this have to do about Turning Positive?”  I’m getting there … first, a little trivia, is your earworm on the top 15 list?  To evaluate the most popular earworms, a game was created in which the users identified the most popular hooks (that’s the catchiest earworms for us non-musicians) … Here’s what they came up with (courtesy of…

  1. Spice Girls – Wannabe: 2.29 seconds
  2. Lou Bega – Mambo No 5: 2.48 seconds
  3. Survivor – Eye of the Tiger: 2.62 seconds
  4. Lady Gaga – Just Dance: 2.66 seconds
  5. ABBA – SOS: 2.73 seconds
  6. Roy Orbison – Pretty Woman: 2.73 seconds
  7. Michael Jackson – Beat It: 2.80 seconds
  8. Whitney Houston – I Will Always Love You: 2.83 seconds
  9. The Human League – Don’t You Want Me: 2.83 seconds
  10. Aerosmith – I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing: 2.84 seconds
  11. Lady Gaga – Poker Face: 2.88 seconds
  12. Hanson – MMMbop: 2.89 seconds
  13. Elvis Presley – It’s Now Or Never: 2.91 seconds
  14. Bachman-Turner Overdrive – You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet: 2.94 seconds
  15. Michael Jackson – Billie Jean: 2.97 seconds

How an Earworm Relates to Emotional Health

Scientists suggest that our inner voice is continually speaking to us.  Sometimes, it can be helpful, “You did great on that!” or “That shirt looks great on you” or it can be harmful, “You’re going to make a mess of it” or “Nothing looks good on you”.  This message is coming from your most trusted source – yourself – so why wouldn’t you believe it?  Subsequently, such self-talk can challenge our self worth.
Our challenge then becomes, “how do we replace the negative self talk”.  This is especially important since self-talk isn’t something we consciously do … it’s something that occurs when our mind isn’t otherwise occupied.  So, simple, we occupy our mind with good things rather than the negative.  It’s at this point that you’re probably looking a little confused and saying, “huh?”… let me explain …
The earworm is a tune that constantly is playing in our mind right …especially when our mind isn’t actively working on something like figuring out what kind of animal Goofy is if Pluto is a dog.  So, if we were to purposely obtain an earworm, that had a positive message, it stands to reason that we could quiet the negative inner voice.  Genius, right?  You’re thinking (I’m assuming), “Sure, like that’s possible”.  I posit that it is!  How?  Glad you asked.  First, we need to understand what makes an earworm… which conveniently, is the next section…

Anatomy of an Earworm

Researchers have evaluated many songs and lyrics in the elusive hunt for the earworm formula.  Of course, if they found it, they would be very wealthy.  Why?  Imagine what singers and songwriters would pay for the formula to a song that would remain in someone’s head long after they heard it?  That’s not to mention what the advertisers would do for such a formula … it’s more valuable than the secret recipe to KFC!
Well, researchers have made significant progress in determining key features of an earworm!  The research of Jakubowski, Finkel, Stewart, and Müllensiefen (2016) suggest that the most effective earworms have the following properties:

  1. Meets a specific beat and pitch – rather than trying to interpret what that means, I would suggest you evaluate the songs listed above … see the similarities in beats and tones? No, that’s OK, because I’m sure one of the tunes is bouncing around in your head with no quick escape right now anyway – bwahaha! Basically, the research suggests that certain melodies are easier to remember – or harder to forget.
  2. The frequency in which key words are repeated
  3. Frequent air play – listening to the song frequently encourages your short term memory banks to move it to a mid-term storage area – that’s why you forget the two items on your grocery list before you forget the tune.

There are many more, very technical factors associated with it, I’ll include the link below in the references section.  The point is, some songs are made to be earworms and others, well aren’t.

Interesting but How Will this Information Help Me?

How will this help you?  Well for one thing, you can share this information at parties and make lots of friends!  Otherwise, I would suggest listening to upbeat music (I prefer Christian) that provides an encouraging / uplifting message.  (Listening to the songs on a Christian radio station will provide opportunities to pick up your own earworm).  Once you find an earworm, nurture and feed it (that is, continue to focus on it from time to time).  When you find that you are again experiencing negative self-talk, start the record back in your head.
Believe it or not, it actually isn’t as crazy as it sounds … in fact, it has scriptural foundation (you knew I was going to get there eventually didn’t you J)… Phillipians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”

Scriptural Foundation

Psalm 19:14 May my spoken words and unspoken thoughts be pleasing even to you, O Lord my Rock and my Redeemer.
Happy thoughts … now back to your regularly scheduled program…


Cnet. (2014).  The top 10 catchiest songs of all time according to science.  Retrieved from
Museum of Science and Industry. (n.d.) Hooked on music. Retrieved from
Jakubowski, K., Finkel, S., Stewart, L., & Müllensiefen, D. (2017). Dissecting an earworm: Melodic features and song popularity predict involuntary musical imagery. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11(2), 122-135. doi:10.1037/aca0000090


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