How to stop ear worms
April 2, 2024 6:38 AM   Subscribe

What do you do when you've got a song stuck in your head for long periods of time and can't get it to stop? I've tried a few things like listening to the song to the end, singing other songs, limericks, meditation, etc. Some times, it just won't go away. (Thanks Joan Armatrading...)
posted by GernBlandston to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I am particularly prone to earowrms that can last for hours or even days and become utterly unbearable at times. Singing a less-catchy song aloud helps, especially if it is very different in style/rhythm or has complex lyrics. Listening to a random playlist of other music also helps. Unfortunately, nothing guarantees that it will go away other than distraction and time. Knowing how bad it can be, I wish you luck.
posted by briank at 6:52 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]

I heard once that if you sing the Mennen jingle (Byyyyy MEN-nen!) it will wipe any earworm from your brain immediately. (And only briefly replace it with the jingle itself.)

Never had occasion to test it but some folks swear by it.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 6:57 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]

Sometimes just riding it out is the only thing you can do, alas.

Personally - I once saw the song "Low Rider" described as "the universal solvent for shit stuck in your head", and that's usually worked for me.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:58 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]

Agree with the general idea above: fight ear worms with less problematic earworms. For me, it works best when the song is pretty catchy, was fairly popular, and I don't love it but like it ok, certainly don't hate it. So I use things like All The Small Things by Blink 182, early Madonna, or sure, Low Rider. I avoid very current very popular songs for this use, as well as songs and artists I genuinely love, ymmv.

The Mennen Jingle and other short memorable jingles (e.g inTEL inSIDE) work for some because they complete. One theory is that some earworms get stuck bc you don't finish the song, you get stuck on the part you know. So this is why some people get a lot of help by just finishing the whole song stuck in their head.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:06 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]

Since for me this rarely happens with bad music, I just enjoy it - them, actually, as I note them down and then compile them into mix CDs. If it is an annoying song (a commercial jingle, for example) I just listen to more of my musical favorites; eventually the bad tune recedes.
posted by Rash at 7:09 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]

I swear by the Roy Orbison Method. Sing a few bars of three different Roy Orbison songs in quick succession (I usually go for Pretty Woman, then Crying, then Only the Lonely) and you'll find your mind magically wiped of all other songs. It's lemon sorbet for the brain, a musical palate cleanser.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 7:10 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]

Meditation? No way, that's got to be the most counterproductive way to rid oneself of an earworm. When you're trying to quit a bad habit, you have to replace it with a better habit, not leave a lovely beckoning void of just the right space for the bad habit to return!

So listen to other songs when you're trying to rid yourself of an earworm. Listen to a whole damn album. Me, I put on a musical like Les Mis or Hamilton, and by the time I'm singing along to ONE DAY MOOOORE I can no longer remember what the old earworm used to be.
posted by MiraK at 7:21 AM on April 2

With me earworms are usually stickier if I don't know the song properly. So I iron out melodic or lyrical problems, learn the song as it should be sung, and then sing the crap out of it. Then it usually goes away. Trying to ignore it or override it does not work for me.
posted by gerygone at 7:46 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]

Somebody somewhere suggested doing a word puzzle in order to activate a different part of the brain.
posted by Juniper Toast at 7:47 AM on April 2

I had a problem with waking up at like 3AM, with some random (Beth by KISS? WTF?), song playing in my head.

The intro of Genius of Love by Tom Tom Club has been very awesome for blocking out earworms for me. Maybe because it doesn't have any words that I know of.
posted by Windopaene at 8:18 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]

The jazz standard St. Thomas is a pretty effective solvent for my brain. The key thing seems to be that it gets stuck in my head regularly, but I don’t mind too much. If you have a song like that I’d recommend it. Big flashy musical numbers work well too; I think it’s the emotional content overriding the irritation.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:31 AM on April 2

I always have an earworm, even when I'm asleep, I've had to accept them and enjoy them. Every now and then I get an annoying song playing, I conjure up a "bleach song" that I love, with a fantastic baseline and that usually does the trick of replacing the earworm with something else.
posted by Zumbador at 8:47 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]

For me, my earworm eater is "The Man Who Sold the World" which rules because it's also one of my favorite songs of all time and I'm always happy to have it stuck in my head.
posted by potrzebie at 8:49 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]

My earworms come from pattern recognition in the nose around me, so hearing any lesser earworm replaces them.
posted by k3ninho at 9:02 AM on April 2

Play it or sing it if you can, however badly. That works pretty well for me.
posted by corey flood at 9:22 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]

I was once told singing the national anthem works. I can report O Canada works for me, but have never tried it with anyone else’s anthem.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:33 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]

Play other music that is catchy, rhymes help, danceable works better. I’m a geezer and Copa Cabana eliminates worms then leaves on its own. Show tunes work really well for the subgroup who enjoy them; the musical Fiorello! is great for this, s well as full of great songs.
posted by theora55 at 9:47 AM on April 2

Fiona Apple has an answer to this
posted by Lanark at 9:47 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]

I have earworms pretty frequently, and they occasionally get worse in intensity (or "stickier" as I described it here. It turns out to be related, at least partly, to brain meds. I have anxiety in an OCD shading, and it seems related.
posted by PussKillian at 9:48 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]

My go-to earworm override is I Like Traffic Lights.
posted by flabdablet at 10:51 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]

I’ve heard that chewing gum has been scientifically proven to temporarily stop the warms.
posted by captainscared at 10:55 AM on April 2

Do a math problem or two in your head.
posted by drezdn at 11:25 AM on April 2

I also use the palate-cleanser method, and for me the song of choice is "The Girl from Ipanema." Good luck!
posted by notquitejane at 12:39 PM on April 2

Previously, or at least very similar.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:45 PM on April 2

I wish I had a failsafe answer, because I can have ear worms plague me for weeks, waking up with the same tune running in my head every morning, as if it’s been playing there all night long. I hate it. I’ve almost stopped listening to music because of it, because when I find a song I love, I want to listen to it on repeat and then it becomes an earworm, so there’s no longer pleasure in listening to music I enjoy :(

The best I have to offer, is that my earworm cleanser that sometimes works, is Maybe Tomorrow, theme tune to the Littlest Hobo (kids’ TV show). And I’ve seen someone else say online that the children’s TV theme tunes of your youth are good for this, so might be worth a try.

I guess they tend to be catchy, but short and simple enough that your brain can’t get too much of a toehold on them. Works best when deployed as quickly as possible after hearing a potential earworm, and using it to dislodge the worm before it can really take hold.
posted by penguin pie at 12:47 PM on April 2

You need a toddler. My son used to have the magic ability to pull songs out of your head when he was about three. He was much in demand in our social circle in the 90s. He would make his hand into a pincer shape, frown in intense concentration, lower his hand over your head and pull it up slowly. Sometimes he dug his small fingers mercilessly into your scalp. By this time he brought his hand all the way up and pronounced GONE! the adult with the earworm was laughing helplessly and the earworm was gone.

Thank you for reminding me - I need to see if his niece has inherited this magical gene.
posted by mygothlaundry at 4:12 PM on April 2

Listen to something that's in 3/4 time.
posted by pompomtom at 5:19 PM on April 2

Best answer: Earworms have actually been studied a fair bit and you can look at some of the relevant research here.

The most convincing explanation is likely that they are a fairly everyday manifestation of our brain and auditory system's normal work. Research paper here (sci-hub).

The two most salient points seem to be:

- They are "unwanted thoughts" and can be considered and treated in a similar fashion to other unwanted or intrusive thoughts.

- They use the same auditory imaging/auditory processing system as we use when listening to music or doing ordinary recall of music. Like if you can remember your favorite song and sort of "sing through it" in your head, that is the same system. It's also the same system you use when listening to actual music.

A couple of practical suggestions stemming from this:

- Unwanted thoughts are often triggered precisely because they are "negative" or we are trying to repress them. It's the "Don't think of a pink elephant" phenomenon.

It's also known as "ironic mental control" - because ironically the very thing you are trying to suppress the most becomes the thing you think about the most - and you can read more here.

This suggests the very fact that you dislike the earworm and are actively trying to suppress it can actually cause the earworm to become more prominent and sticky.

It also suggests remedies of changing your emotional response to the earworm (ie, reframe as something actually mildly pleasant or at least, something you are emotionally neutral about - even if it just keeps going you don't really care that much).

This is where something like meditation might help. It is not that you meditation on the earworm per se. Rather, in your meditation practice you train yourself to observe thoughts, emotions, and other internal processes in a dispassionate way.
You are an outside observer just watching them flow by. You might observe there are emotions attached to these thoughts and feelings but you are just observing those emotions, not experiencing them strongly yourself. It's the whole idea of "detachment".

Now when you happen to have an earworm, you use these same thought processes you have trained via your meditation. You just notice or observe the earworm in a somewhat detached way - and that's all. In particular you just detach yourself from the negative thoughts and emotions related to the earworm and just let them go. You don't hate or dislike the earworm, you just observe that it is happening.

It also suggests that other ways of changing your emotion around the earworm, ie by singing it aloud with gusto and enjoyment might actually help to clear it. You're reframing how you think of it in a positive rather than negative way. "I like this."

- The "auditory imaging" end of things suggests a few things.

1. If you flood your auditory system with other information - listening to another song, singing something, or just thinking mentally of something different - that will at least temporarily crowd out the earworm. The auditory system has limited bandwidth and you can crowd out one thing with another.

Now the earworm might return when you stop doing this. But at least temporarily you can probably crowd it out.

On the other hand if you are thinking the whole time "I have to listen to this music at high volume all the time to prevent that horrible earworm from returning!!!1!!!" that might be counterproductive. Then when you stop the music you check to see whether it work - is the earworm coming back now? Damn, it didn't work!!!!

You can see how it is easy to build up a bunch of negative emotion around the earworm, especially as it persists. Try to just let it go.

2. The auditory recall system triggered by the earworm isn't in essence any different from the normal auditory recall system you might use when recalling your favorite song or the melody to "Happy Birthday".

It's not the auditory recall itself that is the "pathological" element of the earworm. Rather it is the trigger for the recall, which seems to be out of your control and thus can be quite irritating or annoying.

Again this leads to the "ironic mental control" issue. The very fact that it is triggered by something outside your control makes it irritating and thus, you don't like it. This, unfortunately, feeds the negative control loop because now you dislike it even more and spend more time thinking about it as you try to stop the annoying stimulus.

Again, view the fact that these auditory memories are stimulated as a normal part of your brain function and nothing to be particularly annoyed at. View it with more equanimity rather than irritation. It's an interesting quirk of your mental system rather than an unbearable defect.

Another helpful effect here is that usually thinking about, or listening to, one piece of music will soak up all our musical processing power and thus prevent the earworm from also playing simultaneously. This is the basis of techniques that involve listening to another catchy bit of music to "replace" the earworm or thinking of your favorite song - which, again, you hope will replace the earworm. This is the same basic process as an earworm, but your chosen earworm replaces the one you don't like.

At the time you are actively doing this, it will almost certainly replace the earworm in your thoughts. But the hope is that, in addition to that, it will repeat in your memory and thus displace the earworm as "the thing on repeat in your brain," too.

If you read the earworm theory paper it has a lot of examples of things people try to eliminate the earworms, for example under "Earworms as unwanted thoughts."
posted by flug at 6:08 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]

For me ear worms usually occur when I am learning a new piece of music, and don't quite have it yet. My brain is trying to get the whole thing down and seems to get stuck looping through the part of it I do know.

Sometimes something brings to mind a song that I used to know very well but haven't thought of or heard in years and the sound of the most familiar part of some decades old piece of music keeps playing like a recurring clip advertising the oldies."Billie Jean is not my lover, She's just a girl that says, I am the one, I am the one.... Billie Jean is not my lover, She's just a girl that says, I am the one, I am the one.... Billie Jean is not my lover, She's just a girl that says, I am the one, I am the one.... Billie Jean is not my lover, She's just a girl that says, I am the one, I am the one.... "

My impression is that the ear worm is the result of the my brain throwing up a file not found error and being unable to stop looking for the missing data. Learning a completely new piece of music seems to work very well to dislodge an earlier piece of music that got stuck. Failing that making sure I do know the piece and that it is complete, can also work. The idea is to make sure your brain actually does know the route to the very end of the piece and where and how to do that crescendo in the last bar to alert everyone to the fact that this is the last time you are singing the refrain.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:03 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]

According to Mark Twain (in Punch, Brothers, Punch) your only hope is to teach it to someone else who didn't already know it. You can relieve yourself of the torture by inflicting it on someone else.

Even if that doesn't work, at least the story may help you get a laugh out of a miserable situation - and show that earworms have been around a long time.

And besides, reading something absorbing has given me a lot of relief over the years. My earworms are almost always songs with lyrics, so if I give my speech centers something else to do - reading, conversation, trying to learn a new poem by heart - I gain a respite.

As others have mentioned above, many people find that the songs they know only partially are the ones that get stuck on "repeat." Sometimes learning the rest of the words allows you to finally forget the earworm.
posted by wjm at 2:36 AM on April 3

I think I tend to suffer with earworms when I haven't been listening to music very much. My theory is that my brain wants music and if it isn't hearing enough of it, it starts playing it internally. So when I have an earworm I just listen to as much and as varied music as I can. Seems to work.
posted by ElasticParrot at 4:05 AM on April 3

I have had to declare that I am "allergic" to certain bands/artists, because they stick in my head too much. I had to tell my spouse that they can never, ever listen to Ben Folds in my presence again, for example, because I had the same line from one song loudly running through my head for weeks, until I honestly felt like I was losing my mind. For most earworms, I listen to something else -- TMBG's "Birdhouse In Your Soul" is my go-to -- and try to replace the hated earworm with a different one.
posted by maryellenreads at 8:39 AM on April 3

I had a brazilian vintage pop song stuck in head for days last week... I wondered what the physiology/psychology of these occurrences are?
posted by specialk420 at 8:29 PM on April 3

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