Possible reasons for which, when, why, and how songs get “stuck in your head”:

Known as Stuck Tune Syndrome by some, why annoying songs in peoples’ heads is what University of Cincinnati professor James Kellaris has been trying to find out. Kellaris surveyed 1,000 students at four different universities about the so-called “Stuck Tune Syndrome.” The length of each tune being stuck in a person’s head ranged from a few hours to longer than a week. One student even claimed that music from a certain video game had been in his head since 1986. Kellaris attempted to find a pattern in the “stickiest songs”, and found a few possible patterns. One was extreme repitition. This occurred in songs such as the Mission Impossible theme song, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”, and “We Will Rock You”. Also, simplicity seemed to be a recurring theme, especially relating to children’s songs. Take for example, “If You’re Happy And You Know It”. Kellaris calls the stickiness of these tunes a “cognitive itch”, which somewhat relates to a mosquito bite, which only gets worse when you scratch it.

A UC San Diego psychology professor, Diana Deutsch, says that melody may not be related whatsoever to melody. She relates them to recurring dreams which are “trying to tell you something”. However, when posed with songs stuck in people’s heads such as “The Flintstones”, Deutsch says that it the song stickiness may be for evolutionary reasons.

In UCLA’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, H.A. Kelly says, “Maybe this is a modern phenomenon.” She cannot find any references to song-sticking in ancient times. In general, it is a great and difficult mystery that likely will not be solved soon. No cure is known, however “song passing” seems to work for some people, when a person hums the melody to another, thereby getting the song out of their own heads and putting it into another’s. For others, just naming the song can pass the stickiness on.

My personal response to this article? I think that this is a really interesting concept. Though it had occasionally crossed my mind, mostly I had just taken the songs that got stuck in my head as something that just happens, like breathing. I never really pondered on it much. I believe that passing-on songs does work a lot of the time, for I have experienced this many times. Also, just mentioning the names of songs many times gets them stuck in my head. Just writing this node was genuinely difficult, for I had “If You’re Happy And You Know It”, “Gilligan’s Island”, and “Mission: Impossible” all playing in my head at once. I just hope that scientists will find a cure for this soon.

00100 adds that the word for "a song stuck in your head" in German is "der Ohrwurm", literally meaning "ear-worm". Thanks for that interesting tidbit!

References: 1. “The Science Behind the Song Stuck in Your Head” by Roy Rivenburg of the Los Angeles Times (October 7, 2001).