The songs that get stuck in our heads! The word 'stuck' is an important one: it's not voluntary and we can't help it! One research interest of mine is what psychological research often calls such songs 'earworms' or 'involuntary musical imagery'. Recent research suggests that there's a variety of different factors that might play a role in why songs might get stuck in our heads, from repetition, to personal meanings, to specific triggers in the environments around us.
I recently asked a few people around the Faculty of Social Sciences about what song had been their biggest earworm recently, and why they thought that might be the case.
Some people agree with the findings in the literature that some songs are stuck in people's heads because they've been hearing it a lot recently:
'Without a doubt, the Bluey theme song off ABC kids. Send help' - Willo Boniface
'I have mainly had Christmas songs stuck in my head this month because of the time of year….' - Tracy Creal
After all, between having kids and dealing with whoever's programming the Christmas carols on the radio (they love repetition) we've no doubt been hearing those Christmas songs every year for decades now.
Other Social Sciences earworms are likely because they were associated with recent things they saw that impressed them in some kind of way:
'Last week it was Mental as Anything’s ‘Insurance Man’. Greedy Smith died and I revisited some of their albums. I had forgotten how good they were and how much I used to listen to them as a teenager. Insurance Man stuck in my head for days. The lyrics are funny and simple and the song’s a little melancholy.' - Martin Hesse
'The Lumberjack Song. I saw Michael Palin’s one man show at the Enmore theatre this year. The lumberjack song was the final act and EVERYONE joined in (there was a lot of arm swinging amongst the audience!)' - Glenn Salkeld
'‘Don’t Change’ by INXS; why… because November was Oz music month and I watch the Michael Hutchence documentary on ABC and then start listening to their music a lot more. I like the message the song sends about maintaining who you are within your relationships.’ - Kellie Buckley-Walker
Other people seem to have songs stuck in their heads because those songs have been a big thing in their families:
‘Oddly, ‘I woke up in love this morning’ by The Partridge Family was easily the most played song in our car this year. There is something about the chorus to that song that is so catchy. It's the perfect driving song. Every member of my family had that song caught in their head this year.’ - Peter Kelly
‘Dance Monkey’ by Tones & I: Reason – my youngest daughter, Charlotte, is 14 and dances. Her dance teacher, who she adores, introduced her to Tones & I way back before anyone had heard of her. I can’t stand her voice and have suffered through what seems like all year, listening to that song among her others. As to why? It’s a very catchy repetitive tune. Music is a big part of my life and is a constant in my house, one daughter dances, the other sings. I have a renewed respect now for Tones after seeing her and hearing her speeches at the ARIA awards recently. Don’t think I’ll ever listen to the song by choice, but it’s stuck good in my head.’ - Katherine Nagy
Others seem to have songs stuck in their heads because it feels like their subconscious minds are providing them with a bit of stimulation that they need right now:
'...when I woke up this morning I thought “why can’t I get this Castles song out of my head??? I’ve been singing it internally ALL night AARRGGGHHHH….” Then I realised how personally the lyrics resonated with me and how I had instantly taken to it from the very first time I heard it (great break-up song)' - Monica Ferrari
'Chop Suey’ by System of a Down. Why? I need something to set my passion aflame.' - Kishan Kariippanon
'I find songs with catchy beats and rhythms tend to get stuck in my head or ones that have meaning. A catchy song that gets stuck is ‘Woke Up Late’ by Drax Project; it’s great to jig around to' - Lori Duffey
‘...the most recent was Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. Who knows why. I caught up with old friends recently and we listened to a stack of our favourite 80s tracks. It popped into my head and stayed there. At a time of a lot of change in my life, I think it offered comfort and a sense of my self. It was a favourite of my very young youth, and always makes me feel good. Turns out it has a funky energy for my bike ride home these days.’ - Leah Gibbs
In my research I often use 'probe caught experience sampling' to sample people's earworms, which basically means sending random texts asking them to fill out a questionnaire. These probes, on average, usually catch earworms about a third of the time, which is a lot of brain space being devoted to pop fluff! However, one of the methodological difficulties for such research is that doing the experience sampling in the first place probably means people are thinking more about earworms than they otherwise would, which means the rates of earworms are likely higher than they otherwise would be. This is neatly illustrated by Julie's explanation of why she had a song stuck in her head:
'Darlin’ by the Beach Boys… on Sunday evening I watched the episode of Big Bang Theory where Sheldon has an earworm – and once they played the song on the show, yep there it was and has been all week' – Julie Kiggins
But sometimes, even as a music psychologist and a scholar of earworms, why an earworm is in someone's head is pretty difficult to explain:
'Year round, every year (for some reason), I have the theme song to ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ in my head. There is no reasonable explanation.' - Ryan Schatz