Earworms generally, and mine in particular, ft. Belle and Sebastian’s “Blues Are Still Blue”

Walking down an unfamiliar street last week, I turned a corner and saw a sign announcing in a 70s art deco font on a rich burnt orange background: LAUNDERETTE.  Squinting against the midday sun, I smiled and thought of this great song from Belle and Sebastians’ 2006 The Life Pursuit. Catchy country-rock hooks bring you in and subtle changes in each repeat of the chorus keep you there. There’s even a great sustained organ chord at the beginning that lends a momentary but endearing Hall and Oates vibe, not unlike the sign at my particular launderette. (This is not even to mention to video, which I love.) Needless to say, walking the rest of the way down the street humming this gem was no hardship.

Problem is: that was a week ago and it’s been on non-stop repeat in my head, even invading my sleep. It came up on a playlist at friend’s last night and I commented that hearing it might finally be the cure. No such luck, so my only choice was to share it with you.

Coincidentally, I’m not the only one thinking about songs that get stuck in our heads. They are apparently scientifically called Involuntary Musical Imagery and are seen to be a type of involuntary cognition. This month, Victoria J. Williamson and her colleagues from Goldsmiths College, University of London published a study attempting to better understand what they are and why they happen.

Episodes of these stuck songs tend to be repetitive (tell me about it), familiar and fragmentary. It’s usually a small piece of known music that seems to cycle through your head over and over. According to some previous studies, it seems to happen more to people who listen to a lot of music and who have had formal musical education. Williamson and colleagues wanted to probe these causes further and gathered earworm and demographic info from a regular BBC Radio 6 listener earworm feature, from a questionnaire on the station’s website, and from their own Earwormery website.

According to their results, my experience is completely normal: words that appear in songs are a common trigger and earworms often happen in low attention states, when you’re not concentrating on anything in particular and during repetitive tasks (or in my case idly walking down the street). Turns out that despite wanting to feel special with my earworm, though, I may not be any more likely than anyone else to experience one under these circumstances. They didn’t find any connections between the reported earworms and demographics: no age differences, no differences by musical preference and none based on musical training. Earworm triggers seemed to be entirely external, happening when people were reminded of a song for some reason and when they were in the right mood or frame of mind. They do note that they probably only have regular music listeners in their participant group so the question is probably worth pursuing a bit further.

So with that deeper understanding, perhaps I have now passed mine on to you. As earworms go it’s a great song, so enjoy. No word yet on whether the 70s art deco font is a particularly strong trigger though.

Williamson, V. J., Jilka, S. R., Fry, J.,  Finkel, S., & Müllensiefen, D. (2012). How do ”earworms” start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery. Psychology of Music, 40, 259-284.

*This isn’t really the venue, but the social scientist in me would really like to take a moment to commend the authors on the rigor of their analysis. This is a great example of careful and well documented open qualitative coding. Not only are their procedures impeccable, they take the additional (and often overlooked) step of developing their coding scheme with one data set and then independently confirming it with a second. Just in case you were, you know, wondering about that sort of thing.

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