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April 24, 2013
Jewish World Review
Why songs get 'stuck' in people's heads
Harvard Mental Health Letter
Most people have experienced this phenomenon at one point or another:
a mental replaying of a catchy tune, seemingly for no reason. The
tunes that get stuck in people's heads are often advertising jingles,
television theme songs, pop songs, and children's songs.
In scientific literature and in the lay press, the phenomenon goes by
many names: sticky music, stuck songs, involuntary musical imagery,
cognitive itch, mental concert, and ohrwurm (translated literally as
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Studies involving functional MRI have revealed that people "hear"
internal melodies in much the same way as they hear music from a real
orchestra. In both cases, the auditory cortex the part of the brain
that processes sounds becomes active. When the music is playing only
inside someone's head, however, only part of the auditory cortex is
activated, and it is likely that other parts of the brain such as
those involved in memory also contribute.
Investigators in England set out to document how common the stuck song
phenomenon is, and how people deal with it. The researchers approached
people in community settings, such as a railway station and a public
garden, and asked them to fill out a questionnaire about the
phenomenon. All of the 103 respondents indicated they had experienced
a stuck song at one point or another, and listed 159 different songs
they could remember.
In a separate study, the same investigators asked 25 people to keep
"stuck song" diaries for four weeks. Participants reported a total of
269 episodes (involving 199 songs), averaging a little more than one
per week per person.
For the most part, the internal music didn't bother people. Some
simply ignored it or went to sleep. Others silenced an internal melody
by listening to real music or by thinking about another tune. Still
others simply listened to and tried to enjoy the internal music until
it played out.
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