Hannah Pearson
By on August 21, 2014 in Life
Read time: 5 minutes | No Comments

Earworms: I just can’t get you out of my head

Just think of how many thousands of songs are stored in our brains.

I rarely listen to the radio In Malaysia, whereas when I used to live in the UK I listened to it every time I drove to work. When I went back to the UK a few weeks ago, I was amazed by a phenomenon – or, rather, re-amazed, for I had forgotten about it. What was it? That I would hear a 90s song that I would not have heard for 5, 10 years, yet know every single damn lyric.

That set me off thinking: how much storage space do we actually have inside our brains? After all, we can’t just run out to the nearest computer shop to buy some extra RAM to stick inside our heads. What, after ‘storing’ all these songs for the past 30 odd years, I wind up discovering that although I know the words of every Spice Girls song by heart, I have forgotten crucial information or no longer have the space to add new wisdom? Have I just wasted all my precious memory on a few cheesy tunes?

The human brain consists of around one million neurons, according to Professor Paul Reber from Northwestern University, each neuron forming around 1,000 connections, meaning more than a trillion connections in total. That adds up to around one million gigabytes of memory space in the average person’s brain. Or, for the iPod generation, that’s 125 million songs, equivalent to 951 years of non-stop music. So on that count, it seems that I needn’t worry about forgetting everything except the Spice Girls – there’s still a lot of room left.

Equally, just as I can remember all the lines of the Spice Girls songs, I have spectacularly failed to remember any of that algebra that I would have studied around the same period. Really, very little (something to do with letters and the Greek alphabet? But that’s about it). So, why are songs so much easier to remember than facts?

Remembering songs vs. facts

It could be down to different types of memory, Matthew Schulkind, a cognitive scientist from Amherst College, reckons – remembering facts is declarative, whilst remembering music is procedural, akin to riding a bike. Procedural memory is something that does not require conscious thought – it happens because the connections between your synapses have been repeatedly reinforced.

Musicians can sit down at a piano and play a piece of music without the sheet music in front of them, relying on their muscle memory. However, they might struggle if asked to start at a particular point of the piece, as their brains are relying on a set of movements to trigger the action that comes next.When I think about singing along to music on the radio, that makes sense – if I overthink it, I quickly stumble over the lyrics, but if I let myself go with flow, as it were, I can sing along quite fine thank-you-very-much.

Earworms: the wee beastie

Then we come to earworms. Apparently 98% of us have experienced them at some point, that annoying song that pops into your head that you just can’t get rid of, no matter what you do. I’m particularly susceptible to these beasts, something which my partner delights in toying with by playing clips of the soundtrack from Frozen just before I go to sleep in the full knowledge that Let It Go will reverberate through my dreams and unconscious thoughts all night.

A few studies have looked into earworms and have found some common causes: being exposed to the song repeatedly, and stress are a few factors. However, one of the major causes is the awe-inspiring ability of the brain to link pieces of information together. For example, a friend might mention a place that triggers your memory to think of a song that to an outsider may not necessarily be linked. Usually, earworms are songs that you enjoy – very few people complain of having an earworm that they just can’t stand.

Earworms are usually simple melodies, often have similar musical patterns and are far from new – in fact, a famous composer, Slonimsky, demonstrated how to “hook the mind and force it to mimicry and repetition” in his 1947 ‘Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns’ which proved an inspiration for musicians throughout the last century, from John Coltrane to Frank Zappa. Thanks Slonimsky.

Music as an evolutionary force

We just don’t get lines from books on a non-stop loop in our heads in the same way as we do with songs. Psychologists claim that this draw to music has always been present in civilisation. Bone flutes were discovered dating from 40,000 – 80,000 years ago (yes, I agree that is a pretty huge age variant) and we must assume that long before we went to all the trouble of creating musical instruments, humans were singing.

Oral storytelling has been part and parcel of human culture for thousands of years, and in some parts of the world it is still a vital way of communicating life lessons from generation to generation.

Combining storytelling with song provides a lethal potion for memory – as Professor Ian Cross, the Director for Science and Music from Cambridge University points out, songs are easier to remember than facts because they “give us a hook to hang the words on. We know that if the words don’t match with that temporal structure they can’t be the right words. So, it kind of narrows down the problem space, narrows down the search space.”

David Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain On Music, which looks at music throughout history also points to evolution as a factor for why we remember music. He reminds us that the written language was only developed 5,000 years or so ago and prior to that, the best way for civilisation to remember facts – which berries were poisonous, the best places to hunt – was through song. It could be rather like how we encourage our children to learn the alphabet through the ABC song.

Music is multi-sensory and has the capability of triggering Proustian, very personal memories. A song might come on the radio and you’ll remember an exact time and place, or feeling, that it evokes. A few I can recall off the top of my head include dancing with my cousins to S Club 7’s Reach for the Stars at my sister’s wedding; playing the Bear Necessities from the Jungle Book in our high school orchestra or more recently KTV-ing to Katy Perry’s Roar with old colleagues. As soon as I hear those songs I can’t help but be transported back to those moments.

As Yip Harburg, lyricist for The Wizard of Oz aptly puts it:

“Words make you think a thought, music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.”