earworm by Slug Signorino

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. The psychoanalyst Theodor Reik used the term ‘haunting melody’ to describe the psychodynamic features of the phenomenon. The term Musical Imagery Repetition (MIR) was suggested by neuroscientist and pianist Sean Bennett in 2003 in a scientifically researched profile of the phenomenon. Another scientific term for the phenomenon, ‘involuntary musical imagery,’ or INMI, was suggested by the neurologist Oliver Sacks in 2007.

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are more likely to report being troubled by ear worms – in some cases, medications for OCD can minimize the effects. The best way to eliminate an unwanted earworm is to simply play a different song. Supposedly, some songs are better for this purpose than others, such as the theme song to ‘Gilligan’s Island’ or ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’ Arthur C. Clarke’s 1956 short story ‘The Ultimate Melody’ offers up a science fictional explanation for the phenomenon. The story is about a scientist who develops the ultimate melody—one that so compels the brain that its listener becomes completely and forever enraptured by it. He succeeds, and is found in a catatonia from which he never awakens.

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