Having a catchy tune play over and over in your mind is a common experience. This phenomenon, known as earworms or having a song stuck in your head, happens to nearly everyone at some point. But exactly how often do people get songs stuck in their heads? Let’s take a look at what research says about the frequency of this occurrence.
Studies find that over 90% of people regularly experience earworms, with songs replaying involuntarily in their minds at least once a week. On average, bouts of earworms tend to be brief, lasting only a few minutes. However, they can sometimes persist for hours at a time. The frequency of earworm episodes can vary substantially between individuals. Musicians and people who listen to more music may get songs stuck more often than others. Earworms also tend to increase in frequency in times of boredom or stress. Overall, having an unwanted song repeat in one’s head is a very common, nearly universal experience.
How Many People Get Earworms?
Getting a song stuck in one’s head is so common that nearly everyone experiences it. In a survey of over 12,000 British adults by music psychologist Dr. Victoria Williamson, 99.5% reported having earworms at least once a week.1 Another large study of over 3,000 Finnish participants found 93% experienced involuntary musical imagery at least once a week.2
These studies confirm earworms as an incredibly prevalent phenomenon. The vast majority of us regularly get tunes stuck in our minds that replay on repeat.
Frequency of Earworm Episodes
On average, bouts of earworms occur quite frequently. In Dr. Williamson’s survey, over 50% said they got songs stuck in their head at least once a day or more.1 The table below summarizes the results on the frequency of earworm episodes:
|Several times an hour||13.2%|
|Several times a day||42.6%|
|About once a day||27.7%|
|A few times a week||14.2%|
|About once a week||2.3%|
These findings demonstrate earworms are an everyday experience for most of us. Only a tiny fraction get songs stuck less than weekly. However, there is considerable variation in earworm frequency between individuals. Musicians, for example, reported higher rates of earworms than non-musicians.
Duration of Earworm Episodes
In addition to looking at how often earworms occur, researchers have studied how long they tend to last. Williamson found the majority of episodes are brief, ending within a few minutes.1 But they can sometimes go on much longer.
In one study, participants documented their real-time earworm experiences using an app.3 The average duration of earworm episodes was 20 minutes, but ranged from 2 minutes to several hours. Ten percent of episodes persisted for over an hour.
Other research has produced similar results. One study found participants estimated their average earworm lasted about 27 minutes.4 Episodes lasting longer than an hour were reported by 15% of the sample.
So while most earworms are fleeting, a considerable minority can get fixated in the mind for lengthy periods.
Factors Influencing Earworm Frequency
What makes some people experience earworms more often than others? And what circumstances make them more likely to occur?
Musicians vs. Non-Musicians
Being a musician seems to increase susceptibility to earworms. In several studies, musicians reported higher earworm frequencies compared to non-musicians.1,2,5 This may be because musical training and ability affects how the brain processes and replays music.
Recent Music Listening
Another key factor is recent music exposure. The more you listen to music, the more likely songs will get stuck in your head. In one experiment, the more songs participants were exposed to, the greater number of subsequent earworms they experienced.6
We tend to get earworms of songs we’ve heard before and know well. Most research finds the vast majority of earworm tunes are familiar rather than new.7,8 This may be because familiar songs are already represented as neural patterns in the brain that can easily reactivate to loop the tune.
Periods of stress or boredom seem to increase people’s tendency for songs to repeat involuntarily in their minds. In a study tracking participants’ daily earworm experiences, significantly more occurred during bored versus focused activities.9 Stressful incidents also preceded earworm onset in some cases.
Personality may play a role too. Those prone to daydreaming, neuroticism, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies appear slightly more likely to get tunes stuck in their head.10,11 However, the effects of personality on earworms are weaker than for other factors like music exposure and familiarity.
When Do Earworms Occur?
Earworms can strike at any time, but studies find some activities and times of day tend to spawn them more than others.
Morning and Evening
In Williamson’s survey, over 40% reported frequent earworms upon waking up or trying to fall asleep.1 Bouts while resting in bed are common since these moments tend to involve boredom and mind wandering.
Low Attention Tasks
Activities requiring little mental focus like washing dishes, showering, or walking often trigger earworms.12 In contrast, engrossing tasks like office work or conversations tend to ward them off.
Perhaps surprisingly, earworms frequently accompany exercise. Over 25% of Williamson’s respondents got them most often while working out.1 Listening to music during physical activity may explain this connection.
Feeling sad or depressed also seems to increase earworm likelihood compared to happier moods.13 The reasons are unclear, but negative emotions may promote mind wandering.
Ways to Stop Earworms
Because earworms occur so frequently, people often wonder how to get rid of them. No foolproof method exists. However, research suggests a few techniques that may help:
Listen to the Whole Song
Surprisingly, listening to the full earworm song often eliminates repeats in the mind. This may allow the brain to complete its processing of the tune.
Activities requiring attention like puzzles or engrossing conversations can override earworms by occupying cognitive processes.
Intentionally replaying a different more desirable song in one’s mind sometimes displaces an earworm.
Chewing gum seems to reduce earworm frequency, possibly by interfering with auditory imagery formation.
However, avoiding earworms altogether is difficult since common daily circumstances regularly trigger them.
Earworms are an incredibly common and nearly universal experience. Research suggests the vast majority of people get an unwanted song repeating involuntarily in their minds multiple times a week, if not daily. These episodes tend to be brief, but can become lengthy and annoying in some cases. Factors like music exposure, familiarity, and boredom increase people’s susceptibility to earworms. While we don’t have full control over when they strike, techniques like distraction and listening to the full song may help banish them.