How many circumstances in life can you name that affect us all and, even more rare, affect us all in pretty much the same way?  I mean, I knew it was common enough to have a catchy term that is widely used, but I was surprised at how universal this thing is. And it is driving me nuts. It’s possible my case is a tad extreme… I have a helplessly and easily suggestible conscious mind for musical imagery repetition, or stuck song syndrome. You know, EARWORMS.

Usually, it’s a song I’ve heard that gets stuck, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes all it takes is someone carelessly mentioning a song title or a piece of lyric…*glares menacingly at K.R. Brorman*


There, you see what I mean.

Wikipedia cites findings by James Kellaris, one of several researchers who have studied and written about the earworm phenomenon, who found that 98% of individuals experience earworms. Women and men experience the phenomenon equally often, but earworms tend to last longer for women and irritate them more. (Ya think, Kellaris??!!) Kellaris produced statistics suggesting that songs with lyrics may account for 73.7% of earworms, whereas instrumental music may cause only 7.7%. (I can vouch for this. I don’t recall ever experiencing an earworm of instrumental music, and I have tried to write over my earworms with instrumental music to zero effect. So yeah.)

Not to be picky, Kellaris, but what does the remaining 18.6% come from?

Quoting the Wikipedia article a bit more, “In a 2006 book by Daniel Levitin entitled This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, he states that research has shown musicians and people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are more likely to suffer from earworm attacks. An attack usually involves a small portion of a song, a hook, equal to or less than the capacity of one’s auditory short-term memory. Levitin reports that capacity as usually 15 to 30 seconds.”

Yep, 15 to 30 seconds repeated again and again until you want to stick an icepick in your ears.

My favorite part of the article, though, is the note that Jean Harris, who murdered her lover Dr. Herman Tarnower (“The Scarsdale Diet”), was obsessed by the song “Put The Blame on Mame” (from the film “Gilda”) for something like 33 years. Have I ever wanted to commit mayhem because of an earworm? Please. When have I not?

At its worst, the earworm is a song that, unlike Jean Harris, I would never choose to listen to that plays over and over and over… Sadly, it can also be a song that I like, that’s on my iPod playlist and that leads to permanent banishment because the other thing about earworms is that they play the longest and the loudest as accompaniment to my insomnia.

Not long ago, I listened to one of my old favorites – it’s a great tune for working out or working in the garden, a driving beat and catchy lyrics…Peter Gabriel’s *tries to make my fingers whisper ever so softly* shhhh …“Sledgehammer”. Many a long, sleepless night spent in an endless loop, “…I kicked the habit, kicked the habit…shed my skin…this is the new stuff…I’ll come dancin’ in…” Somebody stop me!

I was desperate, in tears, nothing I did could make it stop and it went on for weeks. Anyway, I had to delete it from my iTunes playlist and if I hear the opening bars anywhere, I have plug my ears, change the station, sing something else loudly to drown it out or shut it down. I think it carved paved pathways through my brain that I’ll never dig out. It’s insidious, I tell ya’.

On a happier note, I recently saw the excellent documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” about the lives and careers of back-up singers to some of the most recognizable rock stars we know: Mick Jagger/The Rolling Stones, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Joe Cocker, Elton John and more. I came away with new earworms, but at least – and this is the first time I think this has ever happened – it’s a mini-playlist. So, I don’t get fixated or bored. If one starts to repeat too often, I just skip to the next one and it turns me loose.

In order of preference, there is “Gimme Shelter” (FYI, Lisa Fischer is the back-up singer who gives you chills on this one, she was with the Stones for many years.)

Or, David Bowie’s “Young Americans”…. (Do you see Luther Vandross in the back-up – far left? My earworm only plays the back-up, it’s the chorus that’s the hook on this one.)

Side note: Bowie was and is SO HOT.

If I’m still conscious, I segue into Joe Cocker’s (w/ Leon Russell) “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”.

Since I’m not sleeping anyway, at least my song list is high quality and holds enough variety to keep me entertained.

Until, that is, a few days ago when a rogue slipped in:

The hell? Was it playing on the Kroger Muzak system??? I sang (silently) the “rape, murder it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away” chorus to “Gimme Shelter” a few times and it went away.

Are you one of the 98% who is tortured by enjoys the occasional earworm or are you in the rare 2% that blissfully goes through life free of uninvited Gaga songs playing on an endless loop in your otherwise unoccupied mind? Have you found a way to cope or, more significantly, MAKE THEM GO AWAY? How do you do it??!! What’s your playlist?