Earworm, brainworm, whatever word you choose, it’s that song that gets stuck in your head. Research shows that more than 90% of us experience earworms. UC Davis researchers have found that they may play an important role in helping us form memories, not just for the song, but for life events. In this episode of Unfold, we examine music, memory and what earworms can teach us about how the brain works. 

Petr Janata professor, UC Davis Department of Psychology and Center for Mind and Brain 

Ben Kubit, postdoctoral researcher, UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain 


Audio transcription may contain errors.

Amy Quinton I'm going to play you a song, Kat. 

Kat Kerlin Good. I'm ready. 

Amy Quinton All right. You like music, right? 

Kat Kerlin Of course, doesn't everyone? 

Amy Quinton All right. Let's see if you've heard this one before. Let's see if it plays. 

Music (Seventh Nation Army by the White Stripes plays) 

Amy Quinton Heard it? 

Kat Kerlin Yeah, 

Amy Quinton You have? 

Kat Kerlin Of course. I'm a.. I grew up in the 90s, sort of. 

Amy Quinton Is that when it came out? 

Kat Kerlin Wasn't it?  

Amy Quinton I don't know. 

Kat Kerlin Feels like 90s. It's got like that, kind of like, makes your head jerk forward, like hard, like without even realizing you're doing it. It's one of those. Yeah. White Stripes, right? 

Amy Quinton Yeah. 

Kat Kerlin Duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. Yeah. 

Amy Quinton Like, literally, if that song is from the ‘90s, I feel so old. 

Kat Kerlin Maybe it's the 2000s. It all blends together after a while. I'd have to look it up. Nineties probably early 2000s. Right? 

Amy Quinton All right. So even if you didn't know that this was Jack White and it was the White Stripes, you might have heard it played during sporting events, typically in stadiums, especially that great bass line. That drum beat is really quite catchy, right? Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo. 

Kat Kerlin So, OK, why are you playing this? 

Amy Quinton This song, for whatever reason, gets stuck in my head all the time. Like sometimes, when I'm doing nothing or very little, like making tea or doing chores, it just begins to play in my head, you know what I mean? 

Kat Kerlin Yeah. I mean, you mean like an earworm. 

Amy Quinton Yeah, an earworm. Sometimes called a brain worm or sticky music. The music bores into your brain and just stays there. 

Kat Kerlin Uh. When you put it like that. Songs can get stuck in your head and sometimes just don't go away, like for hours or even weeks. 

Amy Quinton There are other characteristics of earworms, too. I talked to Ben Kubit, a post-doctoral researcher in cognitive neuroscience at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and he described earworms like this. 

Ben Kubit They start spontaneously. 

Music (Seventh Nation Army plays, again)

Ben Kubit If I have an earworm, no one asked me to imagine the song, and it's often not clear, I even wanted to start imagining the song in the first place, right. Um, they also repeat involuntarily on a short loop, so typically somewhere between five and 30 seconds in length. 

Music (Seven Nation Army repeats on a short loop) 

Amy Quinton See how I did that, there Kat? I'm demonstrating how it repeats in my head. It's what makes this White Stripes song such a perfect earworm. That first fragment is about eight seconds. I usually get halfway through the next segment with drums, which is about twenty-five seconds, and then it repeats from the beginning. 

Kat Kerlin OK, I get it. So well, I get earworms all the time too. Like there's this James Brown song. It's great it's called "Get Up Offa That Thing." You know it? 

Amy Quinton You mean this one? 

Music (Get up offa that thing, and dance 'till you feel better. Get up offa that thing...) 

Amy Quinton That one? 

Kat Kerlin Yeah, yeah, that one. So I actually like that one. I mean, a lot of earworms are like the ones you don't want there. I actually like that one. But it pops in all the time usually when I'm trying to get my kids to do something like to, you know, get up off of their things and go do something. And it's just like it's right there in my ear. There's James. 

Amy Quinton It's funny because I imagine that happens a lot with your kids. 

Kat Kerlin Yes, it does all the time. 

Amy Quinton Cognitive neuroscientists say earworms typically have a fast-paced tempo and an easy to remember melody. They're usually songs that you hear a lot. That James Brown song checks off all of those boxes. Turns out there is a good reason we get earworms. They play a role in helping memories form. 

Kat Kerlin So it's a way to help us remember? 

Amy Quinton Yeah, it's a way to help us strengthen memories as they first form. Kubit is one of the researchers at UC Davis studying earworms, which I find completely cool. 

Kat Kerlin Totally. I mean, I imagine we're going to get to hear music in this episode of Unfold. 

Amy Quinton I think we have to. We're going to unfold your brain a bit, so to speak, and answer the question, why is that song stuck in my head

Amy Quinton Coming to you from UC Davis, this is Unfold, a podcast that breaks down complicated problems and unfolds curiosity-driven research. I'm Amy Quinton. 

Kat Kerlin And I'm Kat Kerlin. 

Amy Quinton Before we get into earworms, we have to understand music's effect on the brain. We are, as humans, a musical species. Several scientists have written about this, most notably Oliver Sacks and his book Musicophilia. Have you read that? 

Kat Kerlin I have not read it. I've heard about it, though. 

Amy Quinton Well, I imagine you've heard about the effect music can have on people with Alzheimer's or other cognitive disorders, right? 

Kat Kerlin Yeah. Sometimes they'll have these moments of clarity when familiar music is played, remembering the song or who they are. Wasn't there even a documentary about that? 

Amy Quinton There was. It was called Alive Inside. In fact, Ben Kubit, who we just heard from, saw that documentary and it really sparked his interest in studying how music affects the brain. Science has shown that our brains are just sort of hardwired to connect music with memory. I'm sure you've had an experience where you heard an old song and it brought back memories. Like this one, maybe? 

Music (Every Rose Has Its Thorn by Poison plays) I tried, but I guess that's why they say, every rose has its thorn… 

Kat Kerlin Oh man, yeah. 

Amy Quinton OK, I'll spare you. 

Kat Kerlin All I... Yeah, it’s visceral. It's like I am immediately back in, like, dark room, a junior high gym full of sweaty over-cologned boys, like, too close and awkwardly slow dancing. And yeah, that's that song. So thanks for that. 

Amy Quinton Yeah, you're welcome. So this is what cognitive neuroscientists call music-evoked remembering. You play a piece of music and it takes you right back to that moment in time...when you were going to dances in junior high school, which is funny because my music-evoked remembering often also takes me back to 8th grade. But it's likely a song that absolutely everybody remembers. 

Music (Billie Jean by Michael Jackson plays) 

Kat Kerlin Ah, Michael Jackson. 

Amy Quinton Right. From Thriller. 

Music (She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene. I said don't mind but what do you mean  I am the one...)

Amy Quinton Now that's going to be in your head. 

Kat Kerlin Yeah, that's a good one, though. Like, that's good memories. 

Amy Quinton Totally takes me back to when I was 13. That whole album does. Like I can remember this vividly watching the music video that's on MTV, you know, back when MTV played music. And dancing to it with friends at my house. 

Kat Kerlin Amy, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you are just doing this episode to play music. 

Amy Quinton Well, OK, I'll get on with it. I talked with Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist with the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. He did a neuroimaging study to see what happens inside your head when listening to music that evokes memories. 

Petr Janata What I found in that study was that a set of brain areas that had been shown in previous studies of autobiographical memory, that those also are strongly engaged when we're listening to music. 

Amy Quinton He was looking specifically at a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, which is just right behind the forehead. 

Petr Janata That's a part of the brain that integrates our sense of self, emotional aspects of that, as well as our social relationships. 

Kat Kerlin So is he suggesting that music naturally becomes associated with our sense of self and emotions? It's using the same part of the brain? 

Amy Quinton Yes, exactly. 

Kat Kerlin How did he figure this out? 

Amy Quinton He put study participants in a scanner and played music for them, asking whether the song was familiar, memory evoking and also how much they enjoyed it. Then he looked at what was happening inside their brain. 

Petr Janata These brain regions in the medial prefrontal cortex, sort of in the bottom aspect of it, which are very involved in emotion, were more active when people enjoyed the music. And it turned out that there are certain spots there that responded more strongly, both when the music was more memory evoking and also when it was experienced as more pleasing. 

Amy Quinton And that piqued Peter's curiosity even more. He wondered, how do those music-evoked memories form in the first place and why do they seem to last so long? 

Kat Kerlin You mean like, why does "Every Rose Have Its Thorn" take me straight back to eighth grade? 

Amy Quinton Exactly. 

Petr Janata You know, you can just hear a fragment of that piece of music and yet that remembering experience is so vivid, which suggests that there's a very, very strong association between the music and the memory for the other stuff somehow. 

Amy Quinton Peter says decades of memory research shows that we remember best when something is rehearsed. So as we think about something over and over again, the memory becomes stronger. 

Kat Kerlin Makes sense. 

Amy Quinton But here's the thing. With music-evoked remembering, we're not actively engaging in that memory. Right? At least not all the time. You're not thinking about your friends in eighth grade dances all the time rehearsing it over and over again? 

Kat Kerlin No, not at all. 

Petr Janata What speaks to that also is the fact that, you know, people will often say, 'Wow, I haven't thought of this in years.' So that means that they're there had, you know, I figured there had to be some sort of rehearsal mechanism that wasn't for the, you know, life event content itself. And so it occurred to me that  the form of rehearsal that's constantly happening in our minds is songs that get stuck in our head. 

Kat Kerlin Oh. The earworm. 

Amy Quinton Well, that is what Peter and Ben Kubit, who we heard from earlier, set out to test. They say one of the ways that a song gets stuck in your head is by repeated exposure. RIght? Like, I am positive that I had repeated exposure to the song Billie Jean off Michael Jackson's Thriller album, which was the best-selling album of all time. 

Petr Janata And so if you're listening to a particular piece of music, like you're listening to Thriller all the time in eighth grade, then, you know, you're often doing that in the context of listening to it with friends or sharing those experiences with friends. And so the music has become, at that time in your life, associated with people and places. And then by virtue of that song, getting stuck in your head and repeating it, even though you're just singing that song in your mind, the idea was the hypothesis was that that is also just incidentally, kind of automatically helping to reinforce this other memory content. 

Ben Kubit We started to think of earworms as an example of spontaneous memory reactivation or replay

Amy Quinton Again, Ben Kubit. 

Ben Kubit So Peter and I basically set out to create this kind of music-associated memories in the lab and look at whether earworms not only influenced memory for the music itself, but also memory for events, people and places that become associated with the music. 

Kat Kerlin So, Amy, how did they test this in a lab? 

Amy Quinton This is where it gets really interesting. You can imagine it wasn't easy and in fact, it took Peter and Ben more than six years to figure out how to even set up the experiment. 

Petr Janata I mean, first of all, you've got to be able to induce an earworm in someone with ... for music they've never heard before. 

Kat Kerlin Why is that? 

Amy Quinton Well, it has to be a completely controlled experiment. Participants in the study can't already have an earworm for something. And some music might induce and earworm for some and it might not for others so they needed multiple pieces of music. You can imagine the difficulty. 

Kat Kerlin Yeah, if they had to play unfamiliar music that would form an earworm. How did they know what to play? 

Amy Quinton They just created something simple like this using software like GarageBand. 

Music (music loop plays) 

Amy Quinton It's just a short musical loop. 

Kat Kerlin OK, that's catchy. 

Amy Quinton Precisely catchy and loopy. It can't be too long or it would be unlikely to induce an earworm. Study participants were also in front of a computer screen.  

Ben Kubit In the study, we first get people to form memory for music stimuli. It's basically just by having them listen to it over and over again while they perform kind of menial attention tasks like pressing a button whenever you see a red square. 

Kat Kerlin Why are they performing these tasks? 

Amy Quinton Ben says if a task is menial, you're more likely to form an earworm than if you're actively engaged in an activity. So they set up this experiment to have participants perform both engaging activities and menial activities. But researchers also had to make sure that some of the music they were playing would not become an earworm. 

Kat Kerlin For a control. 

Amy Quinton Right. So guess what they played? 

Kat Kerlin Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass? 

Music (Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass plays)

Amy Quinton Funny Kat. 

Kat Kerlin I think that could be an earworm once you hear it. 

Amy Quinton But here's what they did play. 

Music (scrambled music) 

Kat Kerlin That, that kind of just sounds like noise or like a band warming up. 

Amy Quinton You still hear musical instruments, it's just sort of scrambled. Ben says a key component to music is the predictability or the rhythm. And these loops just don't have that. 

Ben Kubit And so it seems to be like if you take away the brain's ability to kind of encode a musical sequence by shuffling it up and making it really unpredictable, you also seem to prevent the brain from reactivating that memory and experiencing it as an earworm. 

Kat Kerlin Yeah, they're definitely not catchy. Stop playing it. Back to the experiment. So at this point, some people are hearing catchy tunes that could form earworms. Some tunes they're hearing will not cause participants to form earworms. And meanwhile, they're performing tasks that require various attention levels. So then what? 

Amy Quinton So that's day one, all about creating these earworms or music memories, as Ben put it. 

Ben Kubit Then subjects leave the lab. They kind of go about their day to day lives. They come back a week later and now they watch four or five cartoon movie shorts, each paired with the music they heard on the first day. 

Amy Quinton So Kat these are cartoon movies that they've never seen before because they hadn't been released to the public. The idea here is to create new memories and the movies are serving that purpose. 

Kat Kerlin And they're forming an association between the music and the movie. You know, I just I don't know why, but this is so reminding me of A Clockwork Orange. 

Amy Quinton Well, it's not aversion therapy for violence. It's music and cartoons. It gets a G rating. 

Kat Kerlin And no Beethoven. 

Amy Quinton Right. Oh, and Peter says there was one more key detail about the music and the movie. 

Petr Janata So what was cool -  so this was part of the design  - was that we edited it so that each loop would loop for 30 seconds. And so, you know, there's a total of two minutes of the music. And we edited the cartoons to be two minutes long, which means that each consecutive 30 second segment of the movie was uniquely associated with a loop. And this was absolutely critical. 

Kat Kerlin Why was it critical? 

Amy Quinton Well, remember what they're trying to figure out. Is the earworm helping solidify the memory, in other words, helping the memory first form? So..

Petr Janata If, let's say the third loop in the soundtrack becomes an earworm and the others don't, then you should remember more details from that third segment of the movie than the other segments. That was the prediction. 

Amy Quinton So after they've watched the movie, along with its soundtrack subjects leave the lab and return one to four weeks later. They're asked to recall the movie just as many details as possible 

Kat Kerlin And? 

Amy Quinton And... 

Ben Kubit And we found that the more often that a piece of music played in a person's head, the more accurate the memory for the tune became, and critically, the kind of exciting, most exciting result, the more details the person remembered from the specific section of the movie with which the tune was paired. 

Kat Kerlin So it worked. 

Amy Quinton Yes, Peter and Ben found that people's memories of the movie, even after time had passed, were as good as if they had just watched it. 

Kat Kerlin So as long as they experienced the earworm, it helped preserve those memories of the movie. Wow. So this is really showing that there is a benefit to getting earworms. 

Amy Quinton Yeah, even really annoying earworms are somehow helping memories form. 

Kat Kerlin Why are so many earworms so annoying? 

Amy Quinton Well, I asked Ben that. 

Ben Kubit I think a lot of those, those annoying songs are really memorable in the sense that their structure is like really catchy. And so I think it's easy kind of for the brain to grab on and remember these things. And as a result, those memories tend to then reactivate and kind of pop into your head. You know, another reason...so it's easier to form these memories, but you also end up hearing that annoying song quite a bit, whether it's on TV or follows you when you're driving in the car on the radio or comes in and comes on in a movie. 

Music  ("Every Rose Has Its Thorn" plays)

Kat Kerlin Amy, stop playing that song. 

Amy Quinton Sorry, just demonstrating an annoying earworm I'm having. 

Kat Kerlin Uhh 

Amy Quinton Peter pointed out another positive or interesting aspect to earworms, even the annoying ones. He says to think of it this way. Our brain is always active even when we sleep. So the brain has to do something if we're not actively engaged in activity and giving it a workout. Right? 

Kat Kerlin Right. 

Amy Quinton So cue the earworm. 

Petr Janata And so our brains just kind of start playing music, you know, why not put on some background music for our brain? And that's basically what these earworms are. 

Music ("Every Rose Has Its Thorn" plays) 

Kat Kerlin Stop. Are you trying to induce an earworm, Amy? 

Amy Quinton I don't know. 

Kat Kerlin So I'm wondering if Peter and Ben are going to be doing additional research on music and memory, because it seems to me earworms help us consolidate memories, it might help people with memory loss. Right? In some way? 

Amy Quinton Peter is hoping that's exactly where this research leads. 

Petr Janata More excitingly, even if it really opens up opportunities for trying to use earworms as a memory aid. One can now imagine, you know, trying to attach music to other information that you really want to remember and, you know, try to make that an earworm in hopes that that will facilitate strengthening the memories for, you know, perhaps even activities of daily life or, you know, events that occurred or any number of things that a person might want to, you know, try to retain in memory. 

Amy Quinton He says this might help people with mild cognitive impairment or people just starting to have issues with memory loss so they can live more independently. 

Kat Kerlin I imagine you could use earworms to help them remember people. 

Amy Quinton Interestingly, their current research would be really similar to the earworm and memory study, but instead of asking study participants to remember movies by using earworms, they're hoping they can remember facial profiles and biographical information. 

Kat Kerlin Hmm. Wow. Well, that could have a lot of different applications. 

Amy Quinton Right. Can you imagine if people started attaching musical loops or earworms to their Facebook profile? This could happen. 

Kat Kerlin Well, then maybe they would get annoyingly stuck in my head, too. 

Amy Quinton That's true. So what would be your earworm if you had to attach it to your own face? 

Kat Kerlin To me? Um, oh man. OK, honestly, I don't know. I have to think about that, but I do know it would not be "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." 

Amy Quinton No, no. Well, mine would probably be Unfold's outcue music. It's becoming an earworm. 

Kat Kerlin I'm sure. So like this. 

Music (Outcue music plays)

Amy Quinton Precisely. You can read about Peter Janata's and Ben Kubit's research at ucdavis.edu/curiosity.

Kat Kerlin And you can listen to all of Unfold's episodes at ucdavis.edu/unfold. I'm Kat Kerlin

Amy Quinton And I'm Amy Quinton. Thanks for listening. 

Unfold is a production of UC Davis, it's produced by Cody Drabble. Original music for Unfold comes from Damien Verrett and Curtis Jerome Haynes. If you like this podcast, check out UC Davis’s other podcast, The Backdrop. It's a monthly interview program featuring conversations with UC Davis scholars and researchers working in the social sciences, humanities, arts and culture. Hosted by public radio veteran Soterios Johnson, the conversations feature new work and expertise on a trending topic in the news. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.