Earworms: Kolaveri Di and the Pathogenesis of a Musical Malaise

ResearchBlogging.orgLike the rest of the nation (and some would say, the world), I have been asking myself over and over again why this kolaveri kolaveri kolaveri di. And in addition to that I have been asking myself why the heck does this happen to us in the first place. Now if you are not aware of what an earworm is, then take a look at the Wikipedian definition:

Earworm, a loan translation of the German Ohrwurm, is a portion of a song or other music that repeats compulsively within one’s mind, put colloquially as “music being stuck in one’s head.”

Use of the English translation was popularized by James Kellaris, a marketing researcher at the University of Cincinnati, and American cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin. Kellaris’ studies demonstrated that different people have varying susceptibilities to earworms, but that almost everybody has been afflicted with one at some time or another.

And in case you have been living under a rock or buried under mountains of MCQs, then, this is the latest viral video on YouTube, an awesome earworm-ey number by Dhanush, called why this kolaveri kolaveri kolaveri di. Take a listen:

Now that you have been enlightened about the comings and goings that set this post off, it is time to muse on the matter of earworms. While you are reading this, I highly recommend turning Kolaveri Di on, because, admit it, it will be playing in your head anyways. You might as well take it one step closer to beat that Bieber chick.

Before I start this discourse, let me quote Wegner (1) on the matter of active attempts to block the earworm. He says that once an earworm wriggles into your brain, there is no way you can actively work it out. Resistance is futile, as they would say and the only option left to you is passive acceptance. Now I have devised another way to beat an earworm. Replace one earworm with another. When I got bored of Kolaveri Di ringing inside my head in an endless loop, I decided to replace it with… yeah, this one:

A lesser evil? Hardly. Just that there is a belly dancing belle for optic-worms!

Now as it has already been said, Levitin levitated the concept of earworms to a cult status (2) and he also gave it the rather self-explanatory name of “stuck song syndrome”. Now, if you are thinking this is a modern phenomenon, then forget it Mark Twain described it way back in 1876 (3).

A large Finnish study was performed by Liikkanen et al (4) on 12,000 internetizens and they found that a third of the responders said that they experienced earworms everyday and over 90% admitted to at least a weekly affliction.

Studies in music students have shown that they are affected by an even more advanced form of the earworm. They can even imagine the earworms when prompted to complete a musical track. Obviously, being music students, their suggestibility and susceptibility to this infectious meme is higher. This led people to think that there must be a degree of cognitive penetrability associated with this phenomenon – the so called cognitive ‘itch’! It is also further bolstered by Levitin’s claims that earworms are more common in people suffering from OCD, with psychotropic medications sometimes relieving the repetitive rendering of the refrain.

Some scientific studies (5) have mapped neural circuits using fMRI to link sound qualities to brain areas and this has led to the birth of another school of thought striving to explain the pathogenesis of earworms. They claim the song or the sound-sequence gets stuck in “playback mode” in the specific neural circuits for a time until the circuit is exhausted. Wonderful, eh?

Another worrisome group of grump scientists decided to look for evidence of musical hallucinations and ended up concluding that OCD when complicated by schizophrenia or social phobia may lead to expression of musical hallucinations. Now that gets me worried big time. (6)

Some oft rendered comments regarding earworms, which are not always scientifically substantiated by strong, hard evidence, yet, seem to be pretty viable claims about the phenomenon include:

  • Simple songs or jingles or theme music are more likely to earworm its way into our heads than complex music.
  • Females are more susceptible than males
  • The length of the earworm is typically shorter than the so-called “echoic memory” of 15-30 seconds (though in my case I have had earworm attacks that lasted significantly longer)
  • Though earworms are usually lyrics laden, the lyrics are immaterial and may often be replaced or get mutated.

The problem with doing an earworm study is that there is no “theoretical framework” to base a study on. Thus far the only pathological entity that has given us a glimpse into the comings and goings of these uninvited guests is OCD and even so, it is a poorly understood pathology at the best.

There is a speculation that the subjective importance of music in an individual, and not just the musical skill involved (as in the case of the music students above) is also responsible for the nature, frequency and length of an earworm. This has led cognitive psychiatrists to believe that these people are also the ones (aside from the OCD sufferers) who consider find earworms to be a bit of a problematic affair. I think it stands to reason that an involuntary, intrusive cognitive itch about something that one considers important in life is supposed to be more bothering than something that one considers less important or is ambivalent about.

There have been efforts to list songs that are most likely to become earworms (7) but it seems a counter intuitive effort seeing that the tunes usually have a cultural appeal to the afflicted and have been shown (reference study) to be almost unique for each individual. Thus it saves songs like “Run Joey Run” from more embarrassment. [Anybody who watched Glee will get the reference. And in case you don’t just check the song out on YouTube. Its horrid]

A diary study was conducted (reference study, once again) where the earwormed were supposed to note the details of the earworms and their response to the same. The results were along expected lines where the previous claims found some substantiation. The diary study furthered some proof to the idea that earworms are almost exclusively known and very popular tunes. De novo music never featured in the earworms list.

Interestingly, the diary method also proved Wegner’s hypothesis that actively trying to push the earworm away led to more close monitoring of the earworm itself, which in turn meant devoting more neural energy to the neuron-catching jingle, and hence, making it settle in more deeply.

One of the largest differences in case of OCD-earworm association is the fact that they were routinely considered to be unpleasant or distressing, whilst in the non-psychiatric population it was largely considered to be a minor bump in the day which usually played out on its own until and unless one actively tried to do a loopectomy.

So, in conclusion, the next time your mind runs ragged because of that irritating jingle or song couplet that just refuses to stop playing over and over again, stop fighting it and give in. It will pass away on its own. Or just stop for a while and write a 1500-word post. Nothing numbs the mind more than that!

ResearchBlogging.orgBeaman, C., & Williams, T. (2010). Earworms (stuck song syndrome): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts British Journal of Psychology, 101 (4), 637-653 DOI: 10.1348/000712609X479636


1. Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101,34-52.

2. Levitin, D. (2006). This is your brain on music: Understanding a human obsession. London: Atlantic.

3. Twain, M. A. (1876). A literary nightmare. The Atlantic Monthly, 37, 167-170.

4. Liikkanen, L. A. (2008). Music in everymind: Commonality of involuntary musical
imagery. In: K. Miyazaki, Y. Hiraga, M. Adachi, Y. Nakajima & M. Tsuzaki (Ed.s)
Proceedings of the 10th international conference on music perception and cognition
(ICMPC10). 408-412. Sapporo, Japan.

5. Kraemer, D. J. M., Macrae, C. N., Green, A. E., & Kelley, W. M. (2005). Sound of
silence activates auditory cortex. Nature, 434, 158.

6. Hermesh, H., Konas, S., Shiloh, R., Dar, R., Marom, S., Weizman, A., & Gross-Isseroff, R. (2004). Musical hallucinations: Prevalence in psychotic and nonpsychotic outpatients. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 65, 191-7.

7. Kellaris, J. J. (2001). Identifying properties of tunes that get „stuck in your head‟: Toward a theory of cognitive itch. In S E. Heckler & S. Shapiro, (ed.s), Proceedings of the Society for Consumer Psychology Winter 2001 Conference, Scottsdale, AZ, American Psychological Society, pp. 66-67.

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