Earworms! I just can’t get you outta my head

If, like me, you binged watched the new series of Stranger Things, you may have found that a certain song got stuck in your head after a while.

That song, “Running Up That Hill (Deal With God)” by Kate Bush, has been enjoying a renaissance of late thanks to its prominence in the fourth series of a show that follows some Hoosier kids as they fight creepy creatures from a parallel dimension.

Part of Stranger Things’ popularity is its prominent 1980s soundtrack, but old and young audiences have enjoyed the particular inclusion of Kate Bush’s 1985 song throughout several episodes of series four.

Especially in scenes like this (spoiler alert!)

If you’ve found yourself having Kate Bush (or any other music) repeatedly squeeze its way into your head, you’ve probably got a case of Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) or what’s more commonly known as an earworm.

Fortunately this isn’t a literal term (though it’s pulled from the German word ‘ohrwurm’ for earwig, which has been known to occasionally vacation in your ear); for anglophones, it describes the way a tune has a habit of wriggling its way into your mind – and staying there.

Research estimates 98% of people have experienced an earworm at some point in their lives.

But how does this happen, and what makes an earworm possible?

Earworms start in the lobe

Earworms are the result of your memory recalling a piece of music (obviously), but a 2006 experiment at Dartmouth College tried to understand just how the brain makes it all happen.

Here, they played parts of “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones and the “Pink Panther theme” to test subjects. Brain scans showed the auditory cortex light up when the music played.

When the music stopped partway through the tune, participants were required to imagine the rest. Scans showed that the auditory cortex remained active.

This shows that we don’t actually need to hear music to experience it.

So can we predict an earworm?

Yes, thanks to a few factors.

Clearly, familiarity is important. We would assume you have to be familiar with a tune to recall it. But it doesn’t need to be a song we know particularly well. Some studies have found exposure to brand new music several times in succession will increase the chances of it coming back to you as an earworm.

So that means anyone who wasn’t around in the 80s, but binge watched the new series of Stranger Things, would have plenty of reinforcement after their first hearing of “Running Up That Hill”.

Music structure and recency also play a part.

Fun Fact: Kylie’s Can’t Get you Out of My Head was named as one of the UK’s most frequent earworms in 2017.

A 2016 study from Goldsmiths at the University of London found fast tempo music (an average of 124.10 beats per minute) is more likely to be an earworm. 

They also found songs conforming to popular chord combinations and melodies – a song like “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple – have a habit of getting stuck.

For what it’s worth, “Running Up That Hill” only has a bpm of 108, “Smoke on the Water” and the “Pink Panther theme” clock in at 114–116bpm, and “Satisfaction” hits 136bpm.

How recently you heard a tune also plays a part, as does ‘Association,’ where a stimulus prompts the recall of a song for you.

Maybe that explains why Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” were also named as some of Britain’s top earworms…

This isn’t the whole story though, listen to the latest episode of Huh? Science Explained as we get inside earworms, below:

More from Huh? Science Explained: Can you catch a yawn?

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