Have you ever had an earworm? That’s “worm,” not “wig.” An earwig is an insect. You wouldn’t want one in your ear. An earworm is something else altogether.
You know when you have a song or a jingle stuck in your head all day? You can’t get rid of it, it seems. You’ll catch yourself humming or whistling it. It springs up in your inner ear whenever it gets a chance. It drives you nuts.
There are ways to get rid of one. My favorite is to sing a few bars of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Not only does it expunge the earworm, it also gets you more elbow room on the plane.
The qualities that make a song a good potential earworm include repetition, simplicity and an upbeat, catchy melody. These elements can be both blatant and insidious. Often the song is intrinsically annoying, as in “Raindrops,” for instance. That’s what makes “Raindrops” so good at prying out other earworms. It’s surprising that it doesn’t get stuck in the brain in place of the one it just turfed out.
In order to avoid the danger of replacing one earworm with another, an alternative is “completion.” The trick in completion is to seize the earworm and force it to complete itself. Instead of allowing it to repeat the same few bars all day long, you make it go to the end. Often this banishes it completely.
That may explain why earworms are so effective. It could be that they create an itch in the brain to finish what is teasingly started by the repetitive jingle. Earworm researchers call that annoying state a “cognitive itch.” We scratch the itch by repeating the ditty all day, when what we really want is to remove the itch permanently.
Of course, what advertisers would like to do is find an earworm that can be easily inserted into our heads and impossible to get out. That should be doable since 97-99% of people are susceptible to earworms.
There wasn’t an English word for this phenomenon until recently. We’d just say, “You know when you get a song stuck in your head?” But the Germans have had one for some time: “ohrwurm.” It’s German for “earworm” so we went with that.
So far, fortunately, no one has found a foolproof recipe for creating earworms. But it’s a good idea to find a defense against them, because plenty of earworm researchers are being hired by advertisers.