"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Hey Jude: Get that song out my head!

May 28, 2010
Courtesy of the University of Montreal
and World Science staff

Some 98 to 99 per­cent of the popula­t­ion has, at some point, been “in­fect­ed” with a song they just can’t seem to shake off, re­search­ers say. This com­mon phe­nom­e­non has sel­dom been stud­ied, un­til An­dréane McNally-Gagnon, a doc­tor­al stu­dent in psy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­vers­ity of Mont­real, de­cid­ed to ex­am­ine the is­sue in an on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion.

In most cases, the per­sist­ent tunes, known as ear­worms, let go their grip af­ter a few min­utes. In some cases, ear­worms can last hours or even days. McNally-Gagnon is al­so a mu­si­cian, who is of­ten in­fected, which is why she wanted to bet­ter un­der­stand how and why it oc­curs.

McNally-Gagnon asked French-speaking In­ter­net users to rank 100 pop songs ac­cord­ing to their ten­dency to be com­pul­sively re­peat­ed with­in one’s mind. The top five were: Sing­ing in the Rain (Gene Kel­ly), Live Is Life (Opus), Don’t Wor­ry, Be Hap­py (Bob­by Mc­Fer­rin), I Will Sur­vive (Glo­ria Gay­nor) and—in first place—a song un­known to many Eng­lish speakers, Ça fait rire les oiseaux by Car­ib­be­an sensa­t­ion La Com­pa­gnie Créole. (A com­plete list is pub­lished at www.brams.org).

In the lab­o­r­a­to­ry, McNally-Gagnon and her the­sis di­rec­tor Sylvie Hébert, pro­fes­sor at the Uni­vers­ity of Mont­real School of Speech Ther­a­py and Au­di­ol­o­gy and a mem­ber of the In­terna­t­ional Lab­o­r­a­to­ry for Brain, Mu­sic and Sound Re­search, asked 18 mu­si­cians and 18 non-mu­si­cians to hum and rec­ord their ob­ses­sive songs and note their emo­tion­al state be­fore and af­ter. The re­search­ers found ear­worm in­fec­tions last long­er with mu­si­cians than with non-mu­si­cians.

The phe­nom­e­non oc­curs when sub­jects are usu­ally in a pos­i­tive emo­tion­al state and keep­ing busy with non-intellectual ac­ti­vi­ties such as walk­ing, which re­quires lit­tle con­centra­t­ion, the re­search­ers said. “Per­haps the phe­nom­e­non oc­curs to pre­vent brood­ing or to change moods,” said Hébert.

The study al­so found that au­di­tive mem­o­ry in peo­ple can ac­cu­rately rep­li­cate songs. Hum­ming among mu­si­cians was only one key off orig­i­nal rec­ordings, while non-mu­si­cians were off by two keys.

McNally-Gagnon and Hébert now plan to study ear­worms us­ing brain scans. “The only such stud­ies that have been con­ducted were on test sub­jects who men­tally im­ag­ined a song,” said Hébert. “We be­lieve the neu­ro­lo­g­i­cal pro­cess is dif­fer­ent with ear­worms, be­cause the phe­nom­e­non is in­vol­un­tary.”

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Some 98 to 99 percent of the population has, at some point, been “infected” with a song they just can’t seem to shake off, research has found. This common phenomenon has seldom been studied, until Andréane McNally-Gagnon, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Montreal, decided to examine the issue in an ongoing investigation. In most cases, the persistent tunes, known as earworms, let go their grip after a few minutes. In some cases, earworms can last hours or even days. McNally-Gagnon is also a musician, who is often infected, which is why she wanted to better understand how and why it occurs. McNally-Gagnon asked French-speaking Internet users to rank 100 pop songs according to their ability to be compulsively repeated within one’s mind. The top five were: Singing in the Rain (Gene Kelly), Live Is Life (Opus), Don’t Worry, Be Happy (Bobby McFerrin), I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor) and, in first place, Ça fait rire les oiseaux by Caribbean sensation La Compagnie Créole. (A complete list is published at www.brams.org). In the laboratory, McNally-Gagnon and her thesis director Sylvie Hébert, professor at the University of Montreal School of Speech Therapy and Audiology and a member of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research, asked 18 musicians and 18 non-musicians to hum and record their obsessive songs and note their emotional state before and after. The researchers found earworm infections last longer with musicians than with non-musicians. The phenomenon occurs when subjects are usually in a positive emotional state and keeping busy with non-intellectual activities such as walking, which requires little concentration, the researchers said. “Perhaps the phenomenon occurs to prevent brooding or to change moods,” said Hébert. The study also found that auditive memory in people can accurately replicate songs. Humming among musicians was only one key off original recordings, while non-musicians were off by two keys. McNally-Gagnon and Hébert now plan to study earworms using Magnetic Resonance Imaging or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation technology. “The only such studies that have been conducted were on test subjects who mentally imagined a song,” said Hébert. “We believe the neurological process is different with earworms, because the phenomenon is involuntary.”