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4 reasons a song gets stuck in your head

Redfoo of LMFAO knows exactly what it takes to get a song permanently stuck in your head. Now, researchers are getting a clue, too.
Redfoo of LMFAO knows exactly what it takes to get a song permanently stuck in your head. Now, researchers are getting a clue, too.Dave Hogan / MTV via Getty Images

When I take my early morning spinning classes, my weary brain is in a vulnerable state. Maybe that's one reason why the chorus of a particular tune, like LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" or Katy Perry's "Firework," played during the workout gets trapped inside my head for the rest of the day -- and night -- and the next day. 

Known as earworms, these random snippets of songs or melodies pop into our minds repeating themselves again and again like a broken record. For me, another one was that silly jingle from the McDonald's filet-of-fish commercial, which undoubtedly would delight advertisers but I found both amusing and mildly annoying.

So it helps to know that earworms are an incredibly common experience: Studies suggest that 90 percent of people get them at least once a week. Over the last decade, researchers have spent time collecting data to learn who gets earworms, how often they occur, how long they last and which songs won't budge from our brains.

Now, a new British study in the journal Psychology of Music has tried to understand their origins. They looked at how earworms, which psychologists call involuntary musical imagery, get started in the first place.

Researchers collected data from 604 people who completed an online survey. After analyzing the responses, they identified four main triggers for earworms. The most common one was music exposure, either recently hearing a tune or repeatedly hearing it. A second reason was memory triggers, meaning that seeing a particular person or word, hearing a specific beat, or being in a certain situation reminds you of a song.

The third reason for earworms your emotional frame of mind, or "affective states."  Feeling stressed, surprised or happy when you hear a song may make it stick in your head. And a fourth cause was "low attention states."  A wandering mind, whether from daydreaming or dreams at night, can set off this involuntary musical imagery. 

"I was initially surprised by the sheer number of idiosyncrasies within the earworm surveys -- the number of different tunes people heard and the number of unique circumstances where earworms popped up," says study author, Victoria Williamson, a music psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London.

But it makes sense, she says, since "these spontaneous mental tunes appear to be a typical everyday consequence of the way that our brains process music."

And these "sticky songs" can be a tune you hear often or a brand new one. "Earworms are likely to be as individual as we are in both our musical tastes and music listening habits," explains Williamson.

Asked what to do when you get one, Williamson says she'll be trying to find out how people control them in her next research project." But in the meantime, she offers up this advice: "I find that occupying my mind with a task helps -- reading a book, doing a puzzle or talking to a friend."

What about you? Tell us what song has stuck in your head recently and what may have triggered it.