Recent studies have cast some light on the phenomemon of
song-stickage. Although the 'why' is still under investigation, the
'where' seems to be the auditory cortex of the brain. There is even a
name for songs that tend to stick in your head. They are called
"If you've ever gotten a song stuck in your head, you know how
annoying it can be. Researchers at Dartmouth University can't stop the
aggravation, but they do have a good idea what parts of the brain keep
replaying the music.
Using brain imaging techniques and a good CD collection, they found
that the auditory cortex, the same part of the brain that passes
information from the ears to the brain, also holds onto musical
If people are listening to familiar music, the researchers say, they
automatically call on those auditory memories to fill in gaps when the
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers watched
as subjects tried to mentally fill in the blanks to songs both
familiar and unfamiliar that were missing short snippets.
All participants reported hearing a continuation of the familiar, but
not the unfamiliar, tunes during the gaps. And the imaging tests
showed that gaps in the familiar songs induced more activity in the
brain's auditory association area.
'We played music in the scanner (FMRI) and then we hit a virtual
'mute' button,' explained David Kraemer, a graduate student in
Dartmouth's Psychological and Brain Sciences Department and author of
the study, published Thursday in the journal Nature.
With familiar songs, 'we found that people couldn't help continuing
the song in their heads, and when they did this, the auditory cortex
remained active even though the music had stopped,' Kraemer added."
Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Why that song sticks in your head
"New research suggests the brain has and develops structures designed
to perceive musical patterns and then remember them.
Although the brain appears to tap several areas to hear music, the
study determined its musical ear, so to speak, is made up of set
circuits, many of which connect to the rostromedial prefrontal cortex,
a region located just behind the forehead.
It's the existence of these circuits that gives people their innate
sense of melody (some more than others) and why familiar musical
harmonics and ditties like 'Jingle Bells' can literally become branded
in the brain."
Archived copy of ABC News: Music on the Brain
"The songs lodged in your head have been floating around long enough
to obtain a name -- earworms -- and scientists to study them. One such
academic is James J. Kellaris, professor of marketing at the
University of Cincinnati. His paper 'Dissecting Earworms: Further
Evidence on the Song-Stuck-in-Your-Head Phenomenon' put him in the
national spotlight as the foremost expert on these damnable tunes...
While any song can get stuck in your head, Kellaris adds that 'there
are features of songs that make them catchy and thus likely to become
an earworm, such as simplicity, repetition and incongruity.'
Incongruity, as Kellaris uses the term, means 'something odd or
unexpected, such as an odd meter or extra beat in a measure, a
deceptive cadence, a resolution that violates the expected pattern,
even a force-fit of lyrics to a melody."
Houston Press: Get Out of My Head!
"A phenomenon shared by the vast majority of people, according to an
ongoing study at the University of Cincinnati. Nearly everybody has
been mentally tortured at one point in their lives by an "earworm" - a
tune that keeps repeating itself over and over in their heads.
The research also indicates that people who get the most earworms tend
to listen to music frequently and have neurotic habits, such as biting
pencils or tapping fingers....
The term earworm is the literal English translation of the German word
ohrwurm... An earworm is also sometimes called a sticky tune or a
cognitive itch... in Portuguese they call it chiclete de ouvido, or
ear chewing gum."
"According to research done by Professor James Kellaris at the
University of Cincinnati, getting songs stuck in our heads happens to
most if not all of us. His theory shows that certain songs create a
sort of 'cognitive itch' - the mental equivalent of an itchy back. So,
the only way to 'scratch' a cognitive itch is to rehearse the
responsible tune mentally. The process may start involuntarily, as the
brain detects an incongruity or something 'exceptional' in the musical
stimulus. The ensuing mental repetition may exacerbate the 'itch,'
such that the mental rehearsal becomes largely involuntary, and the
individual feels trapped in a cycle from which they seem unable to
But why does this happen? Apparently, repetition, musical simplicity
and incongruity are partly responsible for the annoyance. A repeated
phrase, motif or sequence might be suggestive of the very act of
repetition itself, such that the brain echoes the pattern
automatically as the musical information is processed. Still, simpler
songs appear more likely to make your brain itch, - like Barney's 'I
love you, you love me' tune - but at the same time a song that does
something unexpected can cause the brain to latch on because of
whatever unconscious cognitive incident occurred at that very moment.
These traits of simplicity, repetition and circular composition1 are
potent because we don't remember songs as one complete image, like a
picture, but as temporal sequences that unfold in our brains."
Serendip: Earworm - The Song That Won't Leave Your Head
"Earworms are those songs, jingles, and tunes that get stuck inside
your head. You're almost certain to know the feeling, according to
marketing professor James J. Kellaris, PhD, of the University of
Cincinnati. Nearly 98% of people have had songs stuck in their head,
Kellaris reported at the recent meeting of the Society for Consumer
What helps? Kellaris doesn't know. But he found that when people
battle their earworms, nearly two-thirds of the time they try to use
another tune to dislodge the one that's stuck. About half the time
people simply try to distract themselves from hearing the stuck song.
More than a third of the time people with songs stuck in their heads
try talking with someone about it. And 14% of the time, people try to
complete the song in their heads in an effort to get it to end."
WebMD: Songs Stick in Everyone's Head
My Google search strategy:
Google Web Search: earworm OR earworms song
Google Web Search: "song stuck in * head" +why
I hope this is helpful! It probably won't get the ABBA out of your
head, but at least you'll have some idea of *where* in your cranium
that infernal "Mamma Mia" is lodging, and a few hints on *why*.