A Song on the Brain by Dr Allison Lamont

music notes jpgDoesn’t it drive you crazy? A tune plays over and over in your head. You didn’t try to remember it. You don’t WANT to remember it, but it goes on….and on….It’s a ‘sticky tune’. Sticky tunes are real (sometimes called ‘earworms’ ugh!) and 90% of people report a sticky tune at least once a week.

And psychology of music researchers are on to it.

What they found:

  1. Recency matters – the most recent song you’ve heard is most likely to stick
  2. Repetition matters – hearing a song over and over will trigger ‘stickiness’
  3. Your mood matters – feeling sad will bring to mind a sad song
  4. Associations matter – seeing a picture of Elvis will bring his music to mind
  5. Brain ‘down-time’ matters – fragments come to mind when you are not concentrating on something else.

Can we make them go away?

Somehow these sticky tunes have settled themselves in the long-term memory, probably without our knowing it.singing ironing

As you know, the mind captures information through the five senses, processes the parts you pay attention to in the short-term memory then encodes them for recall later from the long-term memory. Your ‘mind’s eye’ and ‘inner ear’ operate actively for things we want to remember but it appears that they can also encode other information – like sticky tunes – that we didn’t plan.

Psychology says that ‘the mind is an inner world which we do not have complete knowledge of, or have control over’. But there is a suggestion.

Have you heard of the “don’t think of a white bear” problem? It is based on trying not to think about white bears. By trying not to think of a thing, you constantly have to be checking to see if you are still thinking of it – which of course, brings back exactly the thing you are trying not to think of.

The usual solution for not thinking about white bears is to actively think of something else.

For sticky tunes (earworms) it is worth a try to use the same technique. The inner ear is a vital part of the memory process and because we can’t control it, telling the sticky tune to “go away” won’t
be much help (and has been shown to make it worse).

It is much better to give the inner ear another memory task that will overlay the sticky tune. Sing to yourself songs that are similar.

Mind you, you may have another ‘sticky tune’ but at least it will be one you have chosen yourself.

Want to read the research?

About Dr Allison Lamont

Dr. Allison Lamont is Director and clinician at the Auckland Memory Clinic where she tests memory and devises individual programmes for memory remediation. Together with her sister, Gillian Eadie, she co-founded The Memory Foundation to make available information on how to keep your memory sharp and to build brain resilience. This builds a buffer against memory loss during the ageing process. You will find loads of information about your memory on the websites. At The Memory Foundation you can sign up for a FREE memory mini-course, try our online memory games, and find out about memory courses run by the Foundation. You can contact Dr. Lamont at allison@memoryclinic.co.nz