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Where do earworms come from?

Smiling emoji with music headphones
Almost everyone has had an earworm in their head at some time and tried to get it out, but where do they come from? Germany? The term earworm originated in German over a hundred years ago and entered English as a literal translation of the German word Ohrwurm, or ear-worm, which Germans used to describe a catchy tune caught in one’s head.

More than nine out of ten people report having a song stuck in their head for an hour or more, and often for much longer, and some struggle desperately to stop this broken jukebox playing on. Researchers have labelled the phenomenon Involuntary Musical Imagery, or stuck song syndrome, or musical imagery repetition, and have tried to understand how it happens, while advertisers have seen it as a successful propagation of their jingle mantras. The stuck songs do tend to be simple and catchy and often enough are ones the host does not want to hear, let alone repeat, such as some Schlager. Earworms are more common in those with an obsessive thinking style or even Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and in extreme cases have required medication.

Earworms are often attributed to today’s omnipresent recorded music repeating and reinforcing simple songs, but even before recording technology emerged, songs and religious phrases were often repeated and reinforced and would have echoed in the heads of those who had heard them.

Fighting earworms might lead to putting inappropriate items in one’s ears, such as a songbird to catch the worm, and so creating something of a wormhole with escalating events rather like the tale of the old woman who swallowed a fly. Nonetheless, scientists now recommend a remedy: chewing gum, put in the mouth that is.

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