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Songs Stick in Everyone's Head

'Earworms' Bother Women, Musicians Most
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Feb. 27, 2003 -- They bore into your head. They won't let go. There's no known cure. Earworms can attack almost anyone at almost any time.

No, it's not an invasion of jungle insects. It's worse. Earworms are those songs, jingles, and tunes that get stuck inside your head. You're almost certain to know the feeling, according to marketing professor James J. Kellaris, PhD, of the University of Cincinnati.

Nearly 98% of people have had songs stuck in their head, Kellaris reported at the recent meeting of the Society for Consumer Psychology. The 559 students -- at an average age of 23 -- had lots of trouble with the Chili's "Baby Back Ribs" Jingle and with the Baha Men song "Who Let the Dogs Out." But Kellaris found that most often, each person tends to be haunted by their own demon tunes.

"Songs with lyrics are reported as most frequently stuck (74%), followed by commercial jingles (15%) and instrumental tunes without words (11%)," Kellaris writes in his study abstract. "On average, the episodes last over a few hours and occur 'frequently' or 'very frequently' among 61.5% of the sample."

Here's the students' top-10 earworm list:

  1. Other. Everyone has his or her own worst earworm.
  2. Chili's "Baby Back Ribs" jingle.
  3. "Who Let the Dogs Out"
  4. "We Will Rock You"
  5. Kit-Kat candy-bar jingle ("Gimme a Break ...")
  6. "Mission Impossible" theme
  7. "YMCA"
  8. "Whoomp, There It Is"
  9. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
  10. "It's a Small World After All"

Stuck song syndrome annoyed, frustrated, and irritated women significantly more than men. And earworm attacks were more frequent -- and lasted longer -- for musicians and music lovers. Slightly neurotic people also seemed to suffer more.

Kellaris hasn't yet found a cure. Women are more likely to try to get rid of the offending ditties. Men are just as likely to do nothing as to fight their earworms.

What helps? Kellaris doesn't know. But he found that when people battle their earworms, nearly two-thirds of the time they try to use another tune to dislodge the one that's stuck. About half the time people simply try to distract themselves from hearing the stuck song. More than a third of the time people with songs stuck in their heads try talking with someone about it. And 14% of the time, people try to complete the song in their heads in an effort to get it to end.

SOURCE: "Dissecting Earworms: Further Evidence on the 'Song-Stuck-in-Your Head' Phenomenon, James J. Kellaris, PhD, presentation to Society for Consumer Psychology, Feb. 22, 2003.

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