You may have heard the term "ear worm", which seems very similar to what I describe above. A somewhat recent TedEd talk describes just this phenomenon. According to this video, ear worms are bits of a melody, often just a small part of a melody, as opposed to the complete song that get "stuck" in your head. Usually, the ear worm is only the melody, without any harmony lines. Though many believe modern technology, and the ease with which we can hear music as a result, is to blame for ear worms, the video states that this concept has been around since before the invention of the phonograph.
But what actually causes ear worms? Or more specifically, what causes a particular ear worm - why do we suddenly get a certain song stuck in our head? The video linked above, as well as an older story on NPR, shares that, though we don't completely understand the causes, psychologists believe memory triggers, emotional states, and anxiety may be to blame.
As I've blogged before, memory and emotions are strongly linked in the brain, due in part to the close proximity of the amygdala (involved in emotion) and the hippocampus (involved in transferring memories from short-term to long-term). In that previous post, I talked specifically about the connections of memory and emotions to scents. But what about auditory experiences?
You probably won't be surprised to learn that the auditory cortex is close by to the systems above. In fact, the auditory cortex is basically the olfactory cortex's next-door neighbor.
|"Howdy, neighbor, mind turning that music down?" "Only if you stop burning that disgusting incense."|
And not to get too heavy into brain systems, but running alongside the somatosensory cortex is the somatomotor cortex. So if you're listening to a song played by guitar, and you know how to play the guitar, you may have to resist the urge to "play" along, even if a guitar is nowhere near your hands. The connections are strong.
|Next up, an epic air guitar solo|
Okay, seriously, head songs. While I definitely fall prey to a repeated (usually annoying) melody, often of a song I don't like, my head songs are a bit different. They usually are the whole song - even if the head song begins at some point within the song, I usually hear the song as a gestalt (complete with accompaniment, percussion, harmony lines, and so on). So at least my auditory hallucinations are multi-faceted, right? That's got to count for something. In either case, this seems qualitatively different from ear worms.
As far as I can tell, the explanations for my head songs usually come from my dreams (e.g., I once had a dream about an androgynous person, and woke up with David Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel" in my head - "because she's not sure if you're a boy or a girl"), or some random thought I had upon waking (e.g., it's Monday and I get Foreigner's "Blue Monday" stuck).
Why is it usually the whole arrangement, not just melody/vocals? I probably should blame this on modern technology. Though we can't fully blame radio, iPods, and Spotify for ear worms, we can blame it for giving us a full - and usually consistent - experience of a song. And my head songs, though quite variable in genre, range, and instruments used, are most often songs I've heard more than once.
Do head songs happen to you or someone you love? Don't worry, you're not alone. And there are worse things to have in your head when you wake up each morning. Unless that head song is [redacted to save your sanity].