Getting a song stuck in your head, also known as an “earworm,” can be annoying for you and those around you. If you find that at times, while doing unrelated tasks like household chores, you are unable to stop yourself from performing the same song over and over again, we have a solution for you!
A new study from the scientists at the University of California, Davis has determined that this seemingly useless quirk actually plays an important role in strengthening our ability to remember related life experiences.
Most of us probably notice songs that hold specific memories of people or places when they come on the radio. Based on this anecdotal evidence, scientists already knew that music and memory were connected, but what still isn’t understood is how those linked memories form in the first place and how they become so endurable that hearing even just a small fragment of a certain song can provoke strong memories.
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, was the first to link music-evoked remembering to catchy songs that get stuck in your head. The researchers worked with 25 to 31 people in three experiments conducted over the course of three different days and were spaced weeks apart.
Participants were made to listen to unfamiliar music. A week later, they listened to the same music while watching an unfamiliar movie clip, but one group watched the movie clip without music. Then, the participants were asked to recall as many details as they could from each movie as the same music was playing and were also asked about their recollection of the associated songs and how often they found those songs stuck in their heads.
Those who reported having more “earworms” also had a better memory of the song itself. The more frequently they had the song playing in their heads, the more details the participant remembered from sections of the movie with which the song was paired.
After a week of viewing the movie, the effect of playing the song from the soundtrack of the movie in the minds of the participants resulted in near-perfect retention of the details in the movie—the participants were able to recall details as though they had just seen the movie. What’s more, most people were able to remember what they were doing in their regular lives outside of the study when they found themselves with the song from the soundtrack stuck in their heads.
Professor Petr Janata, the co-author of the study, said that their “paper shows that even if you are playing that song in your mind and not pulling up details of memories explicitly, that is still going to help solidify those memories.” Benjamin Kubit, another study co-author, expands on this, saying that even though we are likely to think of “earworms” as a random and somewhat irritating human quirk, the study “show[s] that “earworms” are a naturally occurring memory process that helps preserve recent experiences in long-term memory.”
The scientists hope that their research will be the initial step in developing music-based interventions that may help treat dementia and other neurological disorders that affect people’s ability to remember events, people in their lives, and everyday realities.
Source study: Journal of Experimental Psychology—Spontaneous mental replay of music improves memory for incidentally associated event knowledge