Here's How to To Get Those Painful Earworms Out of Your Head
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Here's How to To Remove That Goddamn 'Frozen' Song That's Been Stuck In Your Head

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | May 1, 2014 | Comments ()


Early last month, after Patton Oswalt sang the song from Frozen, “Let It Go,” up on stage, I mentioned that — thanks to my children — the song had been stuck in my head for weeks. Guess what? It still is. And this didn’t help (thanks, Joanna).

Granted, it vacated my brain for around 36 hours to make room for Blues Traveler earlier this week, thanks to Emma Stone, and sometimes, Winnie the Pooh’s “Tummy Song” will make a brief appearance, but more often than not, it’s the Frozen song wedged so deep into brain folds that I can taste it. It tastes like blood, cold metal, and burnt caterpillars.

This morning, I went on a Whiskeytown/Wilco/Ryan Adam’s bender, thinking I can could vanquish it with beer-soaked melancholy, but as soon as Ryan Adams stopped playing the steel guitar, that f**king song returned, like one of Ron Swanson’s ex wives, hypnotizing me, destroying me. It’s just there now. A permanent fixture. It won’t go away, and I know I’m not alone, because in groceries stores, in playgrounds, and even in dive bars, I hear grown-ass adults idly mumbling the chorus, “Let it Go, Let It Goooooooooo,” wincing when they realize that they’ve vocalized the incessant, perpetual noise in their heads.

It’s a f*cking curse, I tell you. It’s probably why Taye Diggs left Idina Menzel.

This morning, I finally sat down, opened up the Internet, and attempted to discover what was behind this madness. Turns out, this has actually been studied. By SCIENCE. Or WebMD. Whatever. Same thing. James J. Kellaris, PhD at the University of Cincinnati, says that this is something that happens to around 98 percent of us, and in 2003, his students compiled a list that — at the time — were the most popular earworms. It’s fascinating, if only because a few of these hooks, 11 years later, still get stuck in my brain space from time to time:

Chili’s “Baby Back Ribs” jingle.
“Who Let the Dogs Out”
“We Will Rock You”
Kit-Kat candy-bar jingle (“Gimme a Break …”)
“Mission Impossible” theme
“Whoomp, There It Is”
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
“It’s a Small World After All”

And while he could describe the kind of people more prone to earworms — women more than men, musicians more than music lovers, and those who are slightly neurotic — he couldn’t offer a good cure beyond what most people have already tried: Listening to other songs, or listening to that song to completion, since it’s often only a section of the song that usually gets lodged in our brains.

That hasn’t worked for me so far, though, because I listen to that song every day. Sometimes three or four times a day, depending on how much I want to silence the sobbing that arrives if I don’t play it. “No Daddy. Don’t like Wucinda Wiwwiams. WANT FOZEN.”

David Levitan, a psychologist, could at least describe what kinds of songs get stuck in your head.

The songs that get stuck in people’s heads tend to be melodically and rhythmically simple. It’s usually just a segment of the song, not the entire thing from beginning to end. A common method of getting rid of an ear worm is to listen to a different song — except, of course, that song might plant itself in your thoughts for awhile.

“What we think is going on is that the neural circuits get stuck in a repeating loop and they play this thing over and over again,” Levitin said.

Simple, melodic? That describes “Let It Go” to a T.

Levitan further added that on rare occasions, earworms can be detrimental to people’s everyday functioning, suggesting that they can keep us from concentrating, performing our work capably, or even sleeping! And I can honestly say that the only other earworm I’ve had as bad as this was “Take Me Home Tonight,” a heinous song from my childhood that crippled my brain for much of 2011. I knew a woman named Ronnie, and every time I saw her, heard her name, or thought of her, the song would inject itself into my skull again. “Just like Ronnie said …. “

Anyway, detrimental my my everyday functioning is exactly where I’m at now because I’ve actually turned to the Internet to solve such a ridiculous problem. But thankfully, science has found a solution. Here’s Dr. Ira Hyman, who was destined to study earworms with a name like that. He knows exactly how to get rid of those pesky earworms:

“The key is to find something that will give the right level of challenge. If you are cognitively engaged, it limits the ability of intrusive songs to enter your head.

“Something we can do automatically like driving or walking means you are not using all of your cognitive resource, so there is plenty of space left for that internal jukebox to start playing. Likewise, if you are trying something too hard, then your brain will not be engaged successfully, so that music can come back. You need to find that bit in the middle where there is not much space left in the brain. That will be different for each individual.

“It is like a Goldilocks effect - it can’t be too easy and it can’t be too hard, it has got to be just right.”

Perfect! So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go solve some anagrams. Or do some crossword puzzles. Or write a blog post about earworms. That should do the trick.

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