Nuisance or Blessing – the song that’s stuck in your head


Inarguably, music has been shown to have a positive impact on an individual’s wellbeing; with recent studies also showing that it has the proclivity to enhance memory. According to a study conducted at Davis, University of California, researchers discovered that the experience of having a song stuck in your head may play a significant role in memory formation. This is not restricted to the memory of the song itself, but rather to the events surrounding the song. This is no breaking news! Yet, this study sheds some light on the mechanisms underlying this process.

“Familiar music is a potent cue that can trigger, often involuntarily, the recollection of associated autobiographical memories” the authors say. In a three-study series, researchers observed that songs that get stuck in your head, also known as earworms, are part of the first form of the process of strengthening your memories.

This is the first study to establish a link between earworms and music-evoked memory!

Each trial involved 25-31 participants; all of whom were students at the University of Collaboration Davis, and the Graduate School. The subjects initially listened to unfamiliar songs on three different days spread over several weeks. Following which, they were presented with the same songs paired with unfamiliar film clips a week later. At one point during the study, these films were also screened without any accompaniments.

Later, participants were instructed to recall as many details as possible about the films while listening to the same songs. They were then questioned about their recall of the associated tunes and the frequency with which they encountered each tune as an earworm. Importantly, the participants were not trained in formal music.

The study found that, with more music played, the more precise their memory became. The earworms over time, predicted both the precision of musical memory and the quantum of film knowledge recalled, when individual loops were played.

The reproduction of musical sequence memories during earworms episodes has been concluded to function as a mechanism for consolidating the music and the associated episodic information. Thus, it was demonstrated that spontaneous inner reactivation of memory is a natural memory process that aids in the retention of real-world knowledge.

“Our paper shows that even if you are playing that song in your mind and not pulling up details of memories explicitly, that is still going to help solidify those memories,” Janata said.

“We typically think of earworms as random nuisance beyond our control, but our results show that earworms are a naturally occurring memory process that helps preserve recent experiences in long-term memory,” Kubit noted.

Future memory loss assistance? 

The authors expressed hope that their ongoing research will eventually result in the development of nonpharmaceutical, music-based interventions that will aid people with dementia and other neurological disorders in remembering events, people, and daily tasks.

We would love to know your thoughts in the comments below! Do you find yourself to be slightly annoyed by earworms, or delighted?

Watch this video to understand how earworms get stuck in your head and for some tips on how to get rid of them, if you’re still not convinced!

Some sources:

Kubit, B. M., & Janata, P. (2021). Spontaneous mental replay of music improves memory for incidentally associated event knowledge. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication.

Photo by Stas Knop from Pexels

Edited by Malavika

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