Melodious monotony not always a bad thing


University of Kentucky student Shannon Frazer, pictured in the Kernel office on 10/14/09. Photo by Ed Matthews

Column by Shannon Frazer

Remember when you were a kid and rode the “It’s a Small World (After All)” ride at Disney World? How about dancing to the ever popular 1990s hit “Macarena”?  And who doesn’t love the Village People’s rendition of “YMCA”?

Besides the associated fond memories of nostalgia, these are cited as some of the top tunes that people get stuck in their heads.

But why do these and other songs find their way into our brains to begin with? And why does this happen at seemingly inopportune times (like when studying for an exam or just before falling asleep)?

In 2001, James Kellaris, an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, decided to study the phenomenon, referred to “repetunitis” or “melodymania.” His study found about 99 percent of people have had the experience, with nearly 50 percent responding that it occurs frequently.

Women, musicians and people who experience stress often are most likely to have this happen to them. Of the three groups, the stressed population is most prone to attest to the inopportune aspect of repetunitis.

Kellaris’ theory is select songs generate what he calls a “cognitive itch.”  He said, “It is like the familiar pattern of itching and scratching. The only way to ‘scratch’ a cognitive itch is to rehearse the responsible tune mentally.”

The mind senses something unique in a particular piece of music, and in its attempt to relieve the itch the song begins playing in a feedback loop to figure out the song’s rhythm in its entirety.  The process itself is labeled “earworm.”

Kellaris identified three main elements that are most likely causes for initiating a musical itch: repetition, musical simplicity and incongruity — the majority of the time lyrics are the main instigators to start the process.

Dartmouth University conducted a separate study in 2005 and concluded the auditory cortex section of the brain is the site where the hang up takes place.  Researchers discovered that when playing a recognizable song to study participants, the auditory cortex filled in the missing parts automatically, so they continued “hearing” the song in their heads even after the music had stopped.

But repetunitis doesn’t have to be a bad occurrence.

Bucknell University’s 1999 study on this subject revealed that over half of students who experienced the can’t-get-that-song-out-of-my-head feeling rated the song as pleasant and 30 percent were neutral.  People with unpleasant songs in their heads only accounted for 15 percent.

Experts recommend to get an earworm out of your head, try one of the following tips: 1) Busy yourself with a different activity than the one you were conducting when the song initially got stuck, 2) Sing or listen to another song, 3) Listen to the “stuck song” all the way through to the end or 4) Share the song with someone else.

However, UC’s Kellaris admits that strategy No. 2 is probably not the most effective method because it is bound to generate another earworm out of the replacement song.

The next time you get a song stuck in your head, my advice is to try one of these methods.  Or else your current case of earworm might be squirming around your brain for quite some time.