Target Health Blog


January 29, 2018


Anatomy of a multipolar neuron. Graphic credit: BruceBlaus - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Listening to music first involves subcortical structures like cochlear nuclei, the brain stem, and the cerebellum. It then moves up to auditory cortices on both sides of the brain. And when you hear music, listening also involves the memory centers in the brain, such as the hippocampus and lowest parts of the 1) ___ ____. Tapping along with the music gets your cerebellum involved. Reading music involves the visual cortex and listening to or recalling lyrics will involve language centers in the temporal and frontal lobes. If you actually perform music, your frontal lobe for planning, and your motor and sensory cortex will activate as well. Because playing music requires co-ordination of motor control, somatosensory touch and auditory information, most musicians are known to have developed a greater ability than the average person to use both hands. Increased networks between the left and right brain form thick fibers that interconnect the two motor areas, an area that is larger in musicians than in non-2) ___. Because the brain has the capacity to change (called neuroplasticity), music also affects some of the brain's learning capacities, increasing the size of the auditory and motor 3) ___. A research team from Utrecht University in the Netherlands also found music is associated with an improved ability for auditory imagery. Musically trained groups performed better on both a musical imagery task and a non-musical auditory-imagery task than naive groups.

An earworm, sometimes known as a brainworm, sticky music, stuck song syndrome, or Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person's mind after it is no longer 4) ___.  Phrases used to describe an earworm include "musical imagery repetition", "involuntary musical imagery", and "stuck song syndrome". The word earworm is possibly a calque from the German Ohrwurm. Mark Twain chronicled the experience of earworms in his short story "A Literary Nightmare," published in an 1876 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. This story describes the gradual 5) ___ possession of an entire community by a catchy jingle that gets stuck in a mental groove, over and over again, in all of their imaginations.

Researchers who have studied and written about the phenomenon include Theodor Reik, Sean Bennett, Oliver Sacks, Daniel Levitin, James Kellaris, Philip Beaman, Vicky Williamson, and, in a more theoretical perspective, Peter Szendy.  The phenomenon is common and should not be confused with palinacousis, a rare medical condition caused by damage to the temporal 6) ___ of the brain that results in auditory hallucinations. Vicky Williamson at Goldsmiths, University of London, found in an uncontrolled study that earworms correlated with music exposure (having heard the song recently or frequently), but could also be triggered by experiences that trigger the memory of a song (involuntary memory) such as seeing a word that reminds one of the song, hearing a few notes from the song, or feeling an emotion one associates with the 7) ___. The list of songs collected in the study showed no particular pattern, other than popularity. According to James Kellaris, 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. Kellaris produced statistics suggesting that songs with lyrics may account for 73.7% of earworms, whereas instrumental music may cause only 7.7%. In 2010, published data in the British Journal of Psychology directly addressed the subject, and its results support earlier claims that earworms are usually 15 to 30 seconds in length and are more common in those with an interest in music.

Scientists at Western Washington University found that engaging working memory in moderately difficult tasks (such as anagrams, Sudoku puzzles, or reading a novel) was an effective way of stopping earworms and of reducing their recurrence.  Another publication points out that melodic music has a tendency to demonstrate repeating rhythm which may lead to endless repetition, unless a climax can be achieved to break the cycle. Research reported in 2015 by the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading demonstrated that, over the short-term, chewing gum could help by similarly blocking the sub-vocal rehearsal component of auditory short-term or "working" memory associated with generating and manipulating auditory and musical images.

Involuntary semantic memories are a new topic in psychology. Initial research has suggested that musical memories are a dominant type of involuntary 8) ___. Interestingly, no comprehensive information exists on the commonality of “earworms“, or repeated involuntary imagery of music (INMI), and its relationship to the engagement with musical activities.  A recent study investigated these, using cross-sectional, retrospective reports from a questionnaire study that was conducted among Finnish internet users (N = 12,519). The analyses of the Finnish data revealed that 89.2% of participants reported experiencing this phenomenon at least once a week. The amount of music practice and listening was positively related to the frequency of involuntary music. Women reported elevated levels of involuntary imagery episodes in contrast to men, who reacted differently. In older age-groups the frequency of the incidents decreased among both sexes. People with extensive, musical practice history, seemed to experience longer musical segments and more often instrumental ones. They were less agitated by involuntary music and reported it less often. The results are discussed in relation to a memory-based hypothesis of involuntary musical imagery. In conclusion, INMI is viewed as an integral part of our musical mind. INMI appears to be a part of disparate cultures around the world.  In episode 20 of season 7 of SpongeBob SquarePants, entitled "Ear Worm" (2010), SpongeBob gets a song stuck in his head called "Musical Doodle". The episode refers to the 9) ___ as a physical creature that enters one's head upon one's listening to a catchy song. 

In 1943 Henry Kuttner published the short story "Nothing but Gingerbread Left" about a song engineered to damage the Nazi war effort, culminating in Adolf Hitler being unable to continue a speech. In Alfred Bester's 1953 novel The Demolished Man, the protagonist uses a jingle specifically crafted to be a catchy, irritating nuisance as a tool to block mind readers from reading his mind. In Arthur C. Clarke's 1957 science fiction short story "The Ultimate Melody", a scientist, Gilbert Lister, develops the ultimate melody - one that so compels the brain that its listener becomes completely and forever enraptured by it. Lister theorized that a great melody "made its impression on the mind because it fit in with the fundamental electrical rhythms going on in the 10) ___." Lister attempts to abstract from the hit tunes of the day to a melody that fits in so well with the electrical rhythms that it dominates them completely. He succeeds and is found in a catatonic state from which he never awakens.

Sources:;; Wikipedia 

The great Oliver Sachs discusses in a short video, earworms or brainworms 

ANSWERS: 1) frontal lobe; 2) musicians; 3) cortex; 4) playing; 5) musical; 6) lobe; 7) song; 8) memory; 9) earworm; 10) brain

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