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The scientific reasons why catchy songs get stuck in your head


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Photo: Stocksy/Michela Ravasio

Is there anything worse than getting a song stuck in your head for days on end? (And, apologies if this post is already triggering prior trauma from “Call Me Maybe” and “Who Let the Dogs Out?”) Well, there are actually scientific evidence to explain why these “earworms” disrupt your otherwise serene morning mindfulness practice—and tried-and-true ways to make to turn off the mental music.

First, know you’re not alone. A study that analyzed questionnaire results of more than 12,000 Finnish people found that catchy tunes affect almost 90 percent of adults on a regular basis—like, at the very least, weekly. And while some individuals don’t mind the tunes, others truly can’t deal: “Some people are plagued by them to the point that it interferes with life,” professor Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, PhD, who has studied why people get songs stuck in their head, told Time.

“Some people are plagued by [earworm songs] to the point that it interferes with life.” —Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, PhD

So obviously earworms are common, but what makes certain songs more likely to stick around than others? Through her studies, Dr. Margulis has found that parts of songs—”just a bit of the melody”—rather than the whole thing, tend to inspire obsession. Music researcher Kelly Jakubowski, PhD, told Time, these tracks are typically “faster in tempo or more upbeat and make use of more predictable melodic contours” and contain an “unexpected shift in pitch or tempo” that your brain likes to hold onto.

Though there are common traits among earworms, exactly why they get stuck in your head in the first place is still a bit of a mystery. Some experts think they could be a memory aid of sorts, and others think they could be related to having obsessive-compulsive traits.

Either way, there are tricks to stop the music and gift your mind some silence, experts told Time: Try doing a mentally demanding task, chewing gum, or listening to the full song to get a little “closure.”

If you’re going to get a song stuck in your head, make it one of these, which are great for running. Or check out the playlist everyone in Hollywood is working out to right now.

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