UA Scientists Present on Research on Ear Worms, or the Science of Why That Song Is Stuck in Your Head

How and why does a song get stuck in your head?

Captivated by those very questions, a research team at the UA set out to study the phenomenon of “ear worms,” seeking to understand just what happens in the brain when a certain bit of music just shows up.

The scientists—ethnomusicologist and local NPR host Dan Kruse, associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences Andrew Lotto and associate professor of music theory Donald Traut—will present their research at a public forum Wednesday, Oct. 7, at 6 p.m. at the Playground (278 E. Congress St.).

The research is sponsored by the UA’s Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry and the public presentation is part of the center’s fall Show & Tell series.

“When we say ear worm, we mean any occasion when music is repeating in the mind involuntarily,” Kruse says. “You’re not consciously singing the song to yourself, it’s just there, in the absence of any music from the outside. The music is just going on its own.”

The project began when Kruse – who has a master’s in ethnomusicology from the UA—heard a piece on NPR about British researcher Victoria Williamson and a 2011 project studying how ear worms start.

Kruse sought out colleagues and caught the attention of Lotto and Traut, each of whom brought their own expertise to the project.

“We created an interdisciplinary model for researching this that looked at three things. One was the cognitive qualities of this, what is it people experience when they’re having ear worms? The second leg of the stool was music theory. What are the qualities of the music that seem to get stuck in people’s heads? And the third leg is what is that like for people? How do they describe this experience? What does it mean to them?”

With the slogan “Understanding the brain, one catchy song at a time,” the Arizona Ear Worm Project used questionnaires to gather information about people’s experiences with ear worms.

“When you mention ear worms to people, some will say that it’s an annoying thing. But if you poll people, maybe half will say that and about the same number of people will find it really comforting. It’s a mix of both,” Kruse says. “I’ve joked for years that my worst days are when the last song I hear on the radio is Sammy Davis Jr.’s ‘Candy Man.’ It’s the most annoying song in the world. I will sometimes wake up with a song like that in my head for reasons I can’t explain.”

Unprompted memories of other art is also somewhat common, but studying ear worms helps the researchers understand more about the connection between music and the human brain, Kruse says.

“Certainly there are people who might get oratory stuck in their head, or a scene from a movie, or a painting, but overwhelmingly the experience of having music stuck in the head is many, many times more frequent,” he says. “That’s because music has so many things going for it that touch so many parts of the brain. There’s a very specific connection between the human brain and music that’s different than anything else that’s out there.”

For the Oct. 7 Show & Tell, all three researchers will be on hand to discuss their findings, show clips from their research documentary Tracks and interact with the audience about the audience’s personal ear worm experiences.