The word is from a German expression meaning earworm. Ohrwurm means a song with such extreme catchiness that it sticks to your head for an undetermined but relatively long period of time and leaves:

  • when it wants to, (although it rarely does), or
  • when it's replaced with another Ohrwurm (which is very common indeed).

An Ohrwurm can be extremely pleasant or furiously irritating. Most of the time it will be the latter.

Getting rid of an Ohrwurm can be hard, but it is possible with determined action. The preferred method of evicting the menace is giving it some company (note that this does NOT involve inserting foreign objects into the ear canal); Ohrwürmer (that's plural) are not social beings and will very, very rarely tolerate another member of their species. That's why listening to another song repeatedly may eventually result in a coup d'êtat, as the new candidate forces the former inhabitant to leave.

When using the method described above, it is important to select the replacing song carefully, since it is more than likely that the new Ohrwurm will also stay for a considerable time.

There are only two known ways of getting rid of Ohrwürmer permanently:

The former method is widely considered unhealthy and has several nasty side effects; the latter method, alternatively, is not easy to implement in practice, for it requires a constant stream of musical stimuli and uninterrupted concentration.

The Ohrwurm is merely a nuisance, not a serious threat to mental or physical health. There are no known cases of Ohrwürmer causing anything more than temporary irritation and, occasionally, slight insomnia. The longest continuous cases recorded are two instances which lasted for three full consecutive days; first one caused by an Emerson, Lake and Palmer version of the hymn Jerusalem (originally composed by Charles Parry to a text by William Blake), and the other one by Arcturus' The Chaos Path. The patient did not experience any discomfort in either case and fully recovered.

n. (EER-werm), from the German ohrwurm: a song whose tune and/or words resonate in one's mind even in the absence of the song. Also connotes the tune's ability to spread from host to host via almost any audio vector.

Howard Rheingold, in his article "Untranslatable Words" (which appeared in the 1987 Whole Earth Review), appears to have been the first to set the English version of this word in print. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Germans, with their viciously precise language full of laser-guided compound words, and their pop culture bred from a bizarre marriage of Cold War socialism and capitalism, invented the term ohrwurm. Ever since Beethoven and Mozart, the Germans have known catchy music whenever they heard it. Like the Mexican phrase tecato gusano (approx. "the junkie's worm"), it just feels right to describe an external influence that has become internal as a "worm". Similarly, by analogy to the computer term "worm" (for malicious code which spreads quickly under the surface) you are a victim and a vector when you have an earworm.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to recognize the phenomenon: you hear a song, or worse, a snippet of a song, and it's etched into your brain for the next five or six days. You hum it in rhythm with your breathing as you go for a run, you whistle it on the walk across the street for lunch. It follows you, sticks with you, infects you. Paradoxically, you feel the urge to listen to it some more, as though finishing the song would complete your sentence and release you from its spell. Often this serves only to burn it further into your brain. Singing it out loud (provided the tune is recognizable) infects others, and they stumble along like zombies, your audible meme replacing their grocery list in their head, overwriting critical bits of data, jamming their reception of anything else. It competes for processor cycles. It is insidious.

It doesn't take a scientist, but that didn't stop the researchers at Dartmouth University. They discovered (and reported in the journal Nature) that the brain's auditory cortex goes into high gear when you listen to a song, especially one that you know well. Interestingly enough, they also discovered that if the music stops, the auditory cortex keeps "singing along" for several seconds. The effect was different depending on whether or not the song had lyrics, but in either case the brain would continue to sing the song. It seems our brain has evolved to record and play back music, as though hearing the next measure of "Love Shack" or "YMCA" would somehow provide us with just the right data to hunt down that woolly mammoth. "Yes, of course! I'll hit it with a tin roof -- rusted." The familiarity of a song seems to play a strong role in the phenomenon; unfamiliar songs did not seem to cause the same effect. One might hypothesize that the brain needs to have already "recorded" the song in its entirety before it can effect a "playback" in the song's absence. No word on how many times one has to hear a song to record it.

For completeness' sake, it is worth noting that the songs they used to test this theory included the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction and Henry Mancini's The Pink Panther.


Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum-de-dum-de-dum, da-dum-de-daaaaa...

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