Got a Song Stuck in Your Head?

Catchy songs, like "Let It Go," are known as “earworms” for a reason

Apr 03, 2014 | By Jeffrey Kluger for TIME
DISNEY/AP

Elsa the Snow Queen sings her heart out in the animated feature Frozen.

Let It Go! Let It Go!  But, you can’t let it go . . . from your head.

If you’re like half the people on Earth, the song “Let It Go” has been playing on repeat in your mind since you either saw Frozen, or walked into any public place that has a radio on. The Disney version, on YouTube, has been streamed more than 166 million times.

It was a lovely song the first time. Even the 20th time. But the 200th?

Before you ask: No, pounding your head on your desk will not remove the song from your brain. But there is hope—because science is on the case.

Sticky Songs

The use of the word “infectious” comes to mind with a song like this. That’s because the way the song spreads is similar to the way the flu gets around. Think a flu can get passed around easily at school or in a movie theater? What about a song blasting from a movie screen? You can even pick it up person to person, on the street, passing someone who is humming the catchy tune. It’s a musical version of an uncovered sneeze.

The Germans call these songs ohrwurms. We translate that to earworms. What makes these songs stick, and how can you get them unstuck?

Idina Menzel, the voice of Elsa in Frozen, performs on stage during the 2014 Oscars.
JOHN SHEARER—INVISION/AP
Idina Menzel, the voice of Elsa in Frozen, performs on stage during the 2014 Oscars.

First of all, not every song can become an earworm. Usually, it’s the simple, repetitive songs that have auditory stickiness, U.K. musicologist Vicky Williamson told NPR in a 2012 interview. In the same way parents of babies and toddlers pick up colds from their children, they can also pick up songs from Raffi and Barney and The Wiggles. “I get many parents who have listened to too many children’s introduction songs or learning songs,” Williamson said. “They heard them 30, 40, 50, 100 times and they’re stuck as a result.”

Commercial jingles, of course, are designed to be contagious. Their makers want people to remember the product they’re trying to sell. And the part of the brain targeted by a jingle or an earworm is the one that controls short-term memory, says psychologist James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati. But if you think the “short” part of short-term offers hope to get rid of the worm, forget it. Some songs weaken the brain’s ability to erase.  Each repetition of the tune only makes the problem worse—the way that scratching a rash just makes it itch more.

Experts are using magnetic science to study more closely just what goes on in the song-infected brain. And the British Academy and the BBC have now launched an interactive website called The Earwormery. It asks you to take a survey that helps with earworm research.

Get It Out!

As for what you can do today? Listening to another song is known to help, but you might just replace the old worm with a new one. Keeping busy with work, exercise or even a crossword puzzle tends to distract the brain and help silence the tune, but you can’t run forever. And not that you would want to feel sad on purpose, but good moods tend to lead to earworms more than bad moods. One scientist even suggests chewing gum, since the rhythm of the chew can interrupt the song.

The good thing is, nearly all earworms do eventually fade, so patience helps. If you’re stuck with a song from Frozen however, whatever you do, don’t start thinking about other kids’ movies, like Despicable Me 2, with other catchy songs like Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” When that song gets stuck in your head it’s . . . well, never mind. It’s too late.