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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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    "It tastes like blood, cold metal, and burnt caterpillars."

    It sounds like you have been wine-tasting with April Ludgate-Dwyer.

  • phofascinating

    I've been singing "Bye bye Lil Sebastian. Miss you in the saddest fashion" for about a week straight and it is KILLING ME. At least I get to have Chris Pratt's scratchy voice in my head at all times!

  • Ben

    I'm sorry but when you wrote Whoomp, there it is. Now all I can think of is the "Womb, There it is!" pregancy test from Parks and Rec and now I can't stop giggling.

  • Uriah_Creep

    And while he could describe the kind of people more prone to earworms — ..., and those who are slightly neurotic

    Replace the word "slightly" with the word "extremely" and you've pretty much nailed my problem.

  • The thing about that song is that I read the damned title of it like I'm singing it: Let-IT-goooooooo and then IT JUST STAYS THERE FOREVER. Goddamn.

    Sometimes singing the ABC song a few times helps, but not always. Oh, God. Not always. *sobs*

  • TacoBellRey

    I've had the intro bass line of "Cool" from West Side Story stuck in my head for most of my life now. The chorus for "Story of My Life" by One Direction playing in their too. It's an ear worm, but the music video is pretty cool.

  • Lee

    Thank you for this article, Dustin. I have had the earworm curse since I was a wee bairn in nappies. It's nice to be understood :). None of the solutions above work for very long - even finding a new song, coz the default song always comes back as soon as you're not paying attention (mine atm is 'All that She Wants' by Ace of Base - Yaaaay!). It is even in my fucking dreams coz I wake up with it in my head.

  • Bittergeek

    A friend has suggested ending every song stuck in your head with "By...Mennen". Other friends are claiming that it works, but I'm still not sure if it was real advice or some really sneaky Canadian prank with time left before the payoff. Personally, when the voices in my head get stuck on a song I just hit them with an escalating series of the worst music in the world. I start with Shatner, followed by Nimoy, reluctantly reach for "Kompressor Does Not Dance" (the worst techno in the world) and if all else fails I trot out the big gun - The Finnish Male Shouting Choir doing their version of the Star Spangled Banner.

  • Anne At Large

    All it usually takes for me is a better, poppier song. It can't be classical, jazz or whatever Wilco is. But something loud from the 70's or 80's will usually do it. Or at least, reroute the earworm train until I can derail it with a full album of something.

  • kris

    And I thank God everyday I knew the words to "Enter Sandman".

  • PerpetualIntern

    My boss will constantly have an earworm that he will sing ONE LINE of as he goes into his office and shuts the door. That's all it takes to pass it to me, like a bad cold.

  • BlackRabbit

    You say it tasted like burnt caterpillars...this raises the obvious question.....

  • Tinkerville

    Radiolab did a really great segment about the science of earworms that's worth a listen to:

  • dizzylucy

    "It's a Small World After All."
    Pure evil. I've heard that's one to use to get another one out of your head, but it seems like a far worse choice.

    "Gimme a break...gimme a break...break me off a piece of that...applesauce? Football cream?"

  • katyv

    Football cream. It's football cream!
    (Either that or it's Fancy Feast)

  • PerpetualIntern

    Nailed it.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I regularly have earworms. I don't mind them too much most of the time, since I barely listen to radio and I have control over what I listen to. If I want to get rid of one, singing it out loud usually works.

    The problem is that I suck at memorizing lyrics.

  • jennp421

    You leave Eddie Money alone, Dustin! He has two tickets to paradise.

  • cruzzercruz

    I've had this stuck in my head for about four years now. I've lost all sense of reality.


  • BWeaves

    I currently have the theme song from the anime TV show "The Story of Saiunkoku " stuck in my head. I've had it there for weeks. I do like the song though. It's in Japanese. I hope nobody who actually understands Japanese hears me sing it, because I'm sure I'm completely butchering the language, and singing faux pas galore.

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    I have the same issue with the intro to The Lion's King's Circle of Life, during which I am basically mumbling jibberish (and which I sing with embarrassing frequency, whilst hoisting my son skyward.)

  • Cheetahdriver

    You can certainly be no worse than my shower rendition of "Real Folk Blues" in Japanese. I should say, by way of introduction that I was given a large, one time cash payment to NEVER try speaking French again.

  • Rebecca Hachmyer
  • Mrs. Julien

    I once had "Hey Joe" by Jimi Hendrix stuck in my head for a week, specifically the part about shooting his woman down.

    Also, this by Fastball (who?) in the 90s:

    Anyone can see the road that they walk on
    Is paved in gold
    And it's always summer
    They'll never get cold

    It damn near drove me insane.

    Last week, it was "Dirty Water" for DAYS!

    Today, it's "In the Ghetto" by Elvis.

  • Bert_McGurt

    Let me help you with that last one:

  • jennp421

    I hated that Fastball song so much and it seemed like it was always playing!

  • Mrs. Julien

    It left my sanity in shreds.

  • Bert_McGurt

    " vacated my brain for around 36 hours to make room for Blues Traveler earlier this week, thanks to Emma Stone..."

    Which, as I've mentioned before, is the entire metatextual POINT of the song, as the AV Club has helpfully elaborated on:

  • pajiba

    If anything, this post was good for this revelation, and specifically, that AMAZING video linked within:

  • Donna SHerman

    I love that rant, and it's appropriately disturbing that a lot of the songs he talks about are ALSO used in Axis of Awesome's 4 Chord Song. Which is amazing.

    And yeah, I often get debilitated by earworms, and as a female "musician" with OCD it looks like I never had much of a chance against them anyway. Curses.

  • Bert_McGurt

    I was pretty damn impressed with John Popper after I read that article, that's for sure. They should get him on Community. That or BNL, that is (they're essential).

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I went to a Lutheran elementary school. While I was submitted to many, many bad Christian songs, Dona Nobis Pacem is The Worst. There is no art involved, neither in the composition nor in the performance. It's an absolutely dreadful piece of music that cannot be improved by any kind of arrangement.

    Pachelbels Canon in D Major may be everywhere (everything's a remix, after all), but it's a masterpiece in comparison. As a cellist, you're still fucked, though.

  • MissAmynae

    I STILL get this everlovin song in my head. All 4 parts. AUGHH!! We just sang it in public school choir. It was always the song that the entire choir program- middle through high school- sang together. haaaaaaaaaaaaate.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I can't watch at work. Is that video about the Taco Bell Cannon?

  • Jim

    I Dream of Jeannie theme song. Works every time.

  • Liz

    I promise. Sing Silent Night to yourself a bunch of times. Earworm gone. I don't know why Silent Night doesn't get stuck. But it gets the other song out. You have to keep singing it until you basically forget that you're trying to dislodge the earworm. But it works. Every time.

  • truly. It is the Neutrogena Clean shampoo of songs.

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