In the words of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), “Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music”.
It is true though; music has the ability to transport us to a world that somehow we have been longing to go to, but never know how.
Every single person I know listens to, and enjoys some form of music. But have you ever experienced a musical tune playing in your head the whole day or not being able to get that ‘one’ song of your head?
Thanks to the concept of Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) or ‘Earworms’, an “experience whereby a tune comes into the mind and repeats without conscious control”.
Musical imagery, is the process of creating music in one’s own head, even without stimulation from an external object.
It is commonly reported by people and musicians use it to practice or produce music, in the way of notational audiation (mentally hearing and understanding music, even in its absence).
It also occurs involuntarily with little to no voluntary control. According to a study of earworms, songs with a faster beat, catchy lyrics and specific rhythm, such as highs or lows or repeating a tune is what makes them unique, eventually becoming an earworm.
A study published by the APA’s Journal found that the most likely tunes to get stuck in heads were found in nursery tunes and particularly in Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star among others.
Thus, the song Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5 (American pop rock band) is a commonly reported earworm.
A number of synonyms for earworms used in scientific and popular literature as given by sleep researchers and scientists are: brainworms, stuck-song syndrome, sticky music and tune on the brain among many others.
In a very interesting study by sleep researcher Dr Michael Scullin (Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University) and colleagues, it was found that music that we put on to help us sleep, might actually be putting us off it.
The study showed that participants who frequently listened to music during the day were more likely to report persistent night time earworms, which then led to subsequent sleep problems.
When sleep researcher Michael Scullin, realized that he could not sleep well at night due to a song stuck in his head, he quickly understood that this would be a good opportunity to study how music and specifically what scientists call ‘Stuck Songs’ affects sleep patterns.
A recent study published in the Journal of Psychological Science on 9th June 2021 by Michael Scullin, Chenlu Gao and Paul Fillmore discusses the very interesting relationship between music listening and sleep, wherein a song or tune repeatedly plays in a person’s mind.
Even though this is very likely to happen when one is awake, but the study found that this also happens while one is trying to sleep.
Scullin said, “our brains continue to process music even when none is playing, including apparently while we are asleep”.
This study is a significant breakthrough in understanding the relationship between music and sleep because the common notion is that music improves sleep but the study results clearly proved otherwise.
Interestingly, some instrumental music (without vocals) is responsible for twice as many earworms, thus making it even harder to fall asleep.
A few tips given by the lead researcher of the study to deal with this problem are:
(i) Lessen phone/TV use before bedtime.
(ii) Avoid listening to music before bedtime; instead engage in some form of cognitive activity.
(iii) Writing down the next days to do list, frees up space in the mind (offload) and helps one sleep faster.
Music Psychologist Dr Kelly Jakubowski offers a few tips to help get rid of musical earworms:
(i) Engage with the entire song and listen to it till the end.
(ii) Try distracting yourself with a different song or musical tune.
(iv) Try not obsessing over the song by over thinking about it, instead allow it to naturally run its course.
Some studies have shown how chewing a gum can also help in the elimination process, because the logic is that when our jaws are otherwise engaged, our ability to imagine music is impaired.
Listening to music has innumerable health benefits and is definitely very rejuvenating, but as Scullin said, “Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing”. Makes a lot of sense, right?
(i) Psychologists identify key characteristics of earworms (apa.org)
(ii) The mental representation of music notation: notational audiation – PubMed (nih.gov)
(iii) Music at Bedtime Might Not Be a Great Idea (webmd.com)
(iv) Music Listening Near Bedtime Disruptive to Sleep, Baylor Study Finds | Media and Public Relations | Baylor University
(v) Bedtime Music, Involuntary Musical Imagery, and Sleep – Michael K. Scullin, Chenlu Gao, Paul Fillmore, 2021 (sagepub.com)
(vi) Could Musical Earworms be Disrupting Your Sleep? | by Michael Hunter MD | BeingWell | Jun, 2021 | Medium