Why does a tune catch in our brain and linger unwelcome for days? asks Walter Ruzek, of MineolaHave you ever peeled back the leaves on a homegrown ear of corn, only to be startled by missing kernels, and a hungry caterpillar? If so, your backyard garden is hosting a crop of corn earworms.
But other kinds of earworms can be scary, too. An earworm is a tune that crawls in through our ears and repeats in our head. A stuck song can be one you haven't heard in years. Many of the stickiest are pop or rock songs, played hair-tearingly often on the radio. ("Welcome to the Hotel California . . .")
Others may be commercial jingles. ("Gimme a break, gimme a break. Break me off a piece of that Kit-Kat bar.") Just hearing the first few bars may invite an earworm to take up residence.
Surveys say that up to 98 percent of us occasionally experience earworms. Researchers say that earworm-worthy music often has a simple, repeating tune, one with lyrics. People who listen to music a lot, or who are themselves musicians, are especially earworm-prone.
According to researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, our musical memory is especially strong. Even a single word can trigger the memory of a song, especially if we have an emotional connection to the music.
Marketing professor James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati found that while a few songs turn up frequently in earworm surveys, each of us tends to suffer through our own personal playlist of repeating tunes. Researchers point out that we live in a world in which music plays in restaurants, stores, elevators and cars, as well as in our own earphone-plugged ears -- a recipe for repetition.
Studies show that some people enjoy the tunes they're hearing on repeat, while others are driven a bit crazy. How to switch off the musical snippets? An activity that requires real attention, like reading a book or solving a word or number puzzle, will often reset your humming brain.
But researchers say most people use music to fight music.
Some play (or sing) the repeating song. A more effective strategy may be to listen to a different song, which will override the echoing tune. And you could always replace one earworm with one you like better.
Some of the stickiest include popular Christmas songs ("Silver Bells"), the theme from the 1963 movie "The Pink Panther," music from the Wizard of Oz ("We represent the Lollipop Guild . . ."), and old pop songs like The Knack's "My Sharona."