June 21, 2021 -- A catchy song that replays in your mind is called an earworm, and those pesky tunes can be hard to stop. But a song stuck in your head can play a crucial role in strengthening your memory, investigators have found.

Scientists already know that music can stir up vivid memories for people, but they have yet to fully understand how this happens, or why.

To learn more, Petr Janata, PhD, and Benjamin Kubit, PhD, both from the University of California, Davis, did a series of experiments to study how music evokes memories.

People in their study watched unfamiliar movie clips with a music soundtrack they had previously been exposed to.

One week later, participants who'd replayed the soundtrack in their heads had better recall of specific movie details, particularly the clips paired with the soundtrack, than those who did not.

In fact, the earworm effect -- repeatedly hearing that soundtrack -- helped people achieve near-perfect recall of the movie clip, the researchers report.

The Earworm Effect

Music plays an important role in memory formation, Janata and Kubit conclude.

The pair plans to examine the use of music as a tool to help people improve memories as they start to form. They even think music might bolster the memories of people with dementia or other neurologic disorders.

So the next time you catch yourself humming that tune over and over again, you'll know a musical memory maker has wriggled its way into your mind, and that so-called earworm just might be helping you store another memorable moment in the soundtrack of your life.

Show Sources

Petr Janata, PhD, University of California, Davis.

Benjamin Kubit, PhD, University of California, Davis

Journal of Experimental Psychology: “Spontaneous mental replay of music improves memory for incidentally associated event knowledge.”

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