What is stuck song syndrome?

There may have been times you kept recalling a particular song you loved or heard too frequently before leaving a particular scene. Well, that could be normal but when it gets to a level where that song is stuck in your head, like a radio set is inside your skull constantly replaying that song, it means you’ve moved into the realm of a challenge called Stuck Song Syndrome (SSS), also referred to as earworms or musical obsessions.

What is stuck song syndrome?

Earworms or musical obsessions (also called stuck song syndrome) refer to situations where recurring tunes involuntarily pop up and stick in your mind. Oftentimes, stuck songs are catchy tunes, popping up spontaneously or triggered by emotions, associations, or any time you hear the melody. What happens is that earworms are a ‘cognitive itch’, where the brain automatically itches back, resulting in a vicious loop. The more you try to suppress the songs, the more their impetus increases just as if you have a radio inside your head. Stuck Song Syndrome is a situation where unwanted catchy tunes relentlessly play in a loop in the head.

Musical obsessions also called “stuck song syndrome” is very rare, with only a few cases reported across the world. Those who experience this complain of continuous play of a musical tune in the head which they are unable to remove.

Songs likely to get stuck in the head

Catchy tunes are likely to cause earworms. There are songs that are catchier than others, and so more likely to “auto repeat” in your head. Music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski and her colleagues, after a study, found that songs likely to cause earworms were faster and simpler in melodic contour (the pitch rose and fell in ways that made them easier to sing). And the music also had some unique intervals between notes that made the song stand out. The kind of song that causes earworm could also depend on preference of a specific melody or even lyrics by an individual.

What causes earworms?

Here’s what Srini Pillay says about what predisposes earworms: In order to get stuck in your head, earworms rely on brain networks that are involved in perception, emotion, memory, and spontaneous thought. They are typically triggered by actually hearing a song, though they may also creep up on you when you are feeling good, or when you are in a dreamy (inattentive) or nostalgic state. And they may also show up when you are stressed about having too much to think about. It’s as if your stressed-out brain latches onto a repetitive idea and sticks with it. Also, if you have a musical background, you may be more susceptible to earworms too.

You can also stand the risk of having stuck song syndrome if you have certain personality features also may predispose you to being haunted by a catchy tune. If you are obsessive-compulsive, neurotic (anxious, self-conscious, and vulnerable), or if you are someone who is typically open to new experiences, you may be more likely to fall prey to an earworm.

Positives of earworms

It is good to know that stuck song syndrome has positives associated with it, no matter how minor this may seem. Though repetition of speech is associated with childishness, regression, and even insanity, in the case of music it may signify a process that becomes pleasurable when it is understood through repetition. Also, each time music repeats, you hear something subtly different. This learning may constitute one of the positive aspects of earworms. Also, earworms are a form of spontaneous mental activity, and mind-wandering states confer various advantages to the brain, contributing to clear thinking and creativity. This is cheering information music lovers who fear they may experience earworms at some point in life.

How earworms present in the body

It was earlier pointed out that earworms have positives too. Not all “stuck songs” are benign. Sometimes they occur with obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychotic syndromes, migraine headaches, unusual forms of epilepsy, or a condition known as palinacousis — when you continue to hear a sound long after it has disappeared. Persistent earworms (lasting more than 24 hours) may be caused by many different illnesses, such as stroke or cancer metastasizing to the brain. A physician can help you determine if your earworm is serious or not.

How to get rid of earworms

There are various ways to get that repetitive song off your head but one particular way that you should not try is trying to block the song out. Rather you should passively accept it. A determined effort to block the song out may result in the very opposite of what you want. The effect of trying to block the song out is called “ironic process”. It was studied extensively by psychologist Daniel Wegner, and the result showed that resisting the song may make your brain keep playing it over and over again.

Another way to get rid of earworms which some people have tried is to distract yourself from the song. This has worked for those who tried it. In one study, the most helpful “cure” tunes were “God Save The Queen” by Thomas Arne and “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club. Others seek out the tune in question, because it is commonly believed that earworms occur when you remember only part of a song; hearing the entire song may extinguish it.

You can also get rid of earworms through other techniques such as those from cognitive behavioral therapy, like replacing dysfunctional thoughts like “These earworms indicate I am crazy” with “It is normal to have earworms.” A less intuitive cure for earworms is chewing gum. It interferes with hearing the song in your head. A physician could come with prescriptions in severe cases where the earworms are overwhelming. Antidepressants (which also help obsessive-compulsive disorders)n could be prescribed to help with the situation.

Finally!

Having a particular song stuck in your head and repeating spontaneously might not be pleasant at all. The embarrassment of having to sing out the same song all the time especially in the presence of people could be disturbing. But it is also pertinent to note that effect of earworms could range from neutral to pleasant, not serious, and may even be part of your brain’s creative process. Earworms may indicate something more serious especially in a few cases when they continue for more than 24 hours. When sever cases are sensed it is pertinent to see your primary care physician to prescribe how to metaphorically get the radio set spontaneously repeating that song off your head.

 

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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