Why Do Certain Songs Get Stuck in Your Head?

This content is recommended for 30~60 minute sessions. Note that tutors may not be familiar with the content. Make sure you consult with your tutor before using this material. 


After a quick greeting, read the following article out loud. Your tutor will go over pronunciation if necessary.

Peechaya Burroughs for TIME

The passage has been modified from the original article.

[P1] You can’t walk into the office without Rihanna’s voice singing “work work work work work work” in your head. And that one line from Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” still makes you want to scream.

[P2] These are commonly known as earworm songs—those sticky tunes that continue to play in your head long after you wish you could skip to the next track. Experts call them “involuntary musical imagery.” And more than 90% of adults report hearing them on a weekly (if not daily) basis, finds a recent study in the journal Psychology of Music. While there’s a huge amount of person-to-person variation when it comes to these songs, they hang around for an average of 30 minutes, and they tend to be tunes with lyrics, not just instrumentation.

[P3] Fortunately, most people report earworm songs as benign or pleasant. But others find them annoying or even maddening. “Some people are plagued by them to the point that it interferes with life,” says Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, a professor and director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas who has studied the ways people get songs stuck in their heads.

[P4] Margulis says earworm songs tend to have some predictable characteristics. For one thing, they tend to be small snippets of a song—not the whole track. “It’s usually just a bit of the melody,” she says. The songs you’ve heard recently are also the most likely to get lodged in your cranium, she says.

[P5] Although their provenance is often mysterious, earworm songs have some common traits. “Earworm songs tend to be faster in tempo, or more upbeat, and make use of more predictable melodic contours,” says Kelly Jakubowski, a music researcher at Durham University in the U.K., who has studied earworm songs. Along with their predictable melodies, they also tend to contain an unexpected little shift in pitch or tempo that your brain finds memorable, she says.

[P6] Earworm songs may also play a role in memory. In one of his studies on earworm songs, Lassi Liikkanen of Finland’s Helsinki Institute for Information Technology theorizes that the involuntary bits and bobs that pop into our heads may be mnemonic devices, or memory aids. There’s also research showing that music can help improve memory among people with multiple sclerosis, and a large body of evidence suggests our minds use association to both store and retrieve memories.

[P7] For now, like so much else having to do with the brain and memory, the overarching explanation for why human beings experience earworm songs remains a mystery. But there are some well-established ways to rid yourself of these perturbing bits of musical fluff.

[P8] “Finding a mentally demanding task and putting your mind on it usually shifts attention away from internal music,” Liikkanen says. Margulis agrees. “People tend to get earworms when performing tasks that don’t require their full attention—stuff like doing the dishes,” she says.

[P9] You could also confront your enemy. By listening to the full track that includes the passage stuck in your head, Jakubowski says, you may find “closure” and relief.

Source: http://time.com/5115013/song-stuck-in-head-earworm/


Read the word/expression and definition out loud. Your tutor will go over anything you do not understand. Practice creating a sentence or two to make sure you know how to use the word/expression properly.

Vocabulary/ Expressions

Expression Definition
imagery (n) language that causes people to imagine pictures in their mind
e.g. The book contains a great deal of religious imagery.
plague (v) to cause constant worry or distress to (someone) — usually used as (be) plagued
e.g. He is plagued by a sense of guilt.
snippet (n) a small part of something (such as a piece of music, a conversation, etc.)
e.g. snippets from the author’s newest novel
contour (n) the outline or outer edge of something
e.g. He loved the sleek contours of the car.
perturb (v) to cause (someone) to be worried or upset
e.g. It perturbed him that his son was thinking about leaving school.

Discussion Questions

Use the following questions as a guideline to help develop an interesting conversation with your tutor. Feel free to diverge from these suggestions if anything interesting comes up.

  1. Summarize the article in your own words.
  2. What is an earworm song? Describe its traits. Share an example.
  3. Have you ever experienced a song being stuck in your head? What was the song, and what was the occasion?
  4. Why do songs get stuck in your head? Come up with your own hypothesis. Share your thoughts with your Cambly tutor!


Go over any new expressions or vocabulary that you learned today.

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