Why we get earworms, and 4 other medical mysteries of music: Alan Cross

Earworms, the name given to what happens when you have a song stuck in your head, is a well-documented neurological phenomenon. Jiangang Wang/Getty

As far as evolutionary biologists can determine, there was no need for humans to develop music. There are theories, of course. Is our capacity for music a side effect of developing language? Did it result from an attempt to mimic birdsong? No one really knows.

Yet our brains seem to be hardwired for music in so many wonderful and mysterious ways. Here are five examples of the strange relationship between music and the squishy grey stuff in our skulls.

1. Earworms

The following message is scrawled above a urinal in a downtown Toronto restaurant: “I’ve had Elton John’s Rocket Man going through my head all day. And now you do, too.” (Sorry about that. I know you can’t stop thinking of the phrase “I think it’s going to be a long, long time” now.)

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Earworms, the name given to what happens when you have a song stuck in your head, is a well-documented neurological phenomenon. Its first mention in literature seems to be an 1876 story by Mark Twain, who tells the story about a musical phrase that can only be struck from one’s head by passing it on to another, like some disease or spirit. The word earworm itself first shows up in a novel entitled Flyaway by Desmond Bagley published in 1978.

Why do these musical phrases get stuck in our head? It seems that the portion of the brain tasked with processing audio gets caught in a loop, the neurological equivalent of a stuck hourglass or a spinning beachball on your computer. News-Medical.Net explains that this part of the left primary auditory cortex is like computer RAM that contains enough capacity for 15-20 seconds, which explains the length of earworms.

According to the University of St. Andrews, the portion of the song that gets stuck is dependent on five addiction factors: surprise, predictability, rhythmic repetition, melodic potency, and the listener’s feelings about the tune.

So how can one force quit/ctrl-alt-del an earworm of your head? Chewing gum seems to help for some reason. Doing Sudoku or a crossword puzzle does the trick for some.

But even that may not be enough for people with truly debilitating earworms. They may be prescribed ADHD drugs which may provide relief.

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2. Songs for times of comfort

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We all use music to comfort us when we’re stressed, sad or in need of a psychic pick-me-up. Ever notice that we often go back to the same songs over and over and over again without getting tired of them? We’ve heard these tracks so many times that all novelty and surprise have been stripped away, yet we continue to crave hearing them.

Researchers at the University of Michigan recently reported: “Niche listening may enable listeners to develop the kind of personally meaningful relationships with particular songs that allows their affection for those songs to persist across very large amounts of exposure.”

As with earworms, the relationships with these songs depended on melody, beat/rhythm, and lyrics. Of the 204 participants in the study, 86 per cent reported listening to their favourite songs several times a day and even once daily. Sixty per cent say they’ll listen to their favourite songs multiple times in a row.

Another factor is the age at which you were first exposed to these songs. We all have a sweet spot between the ages of 14-25 where we’re most susceptible to music’s influence. Plenty of our comfort songs come from that time in our lives.

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Put it this way: If you’ve listened to your favourite songs hundreds or even thousands of times in your life, you’re not alone.

3. Can you literally scream your lungs out? Yes.

Few species on this planet can make a noise like 10,000 screaming teenage girls. That’s a lot of lung power, but it can come at a serious health cost — and I don’t mean one’s hearing (although that’s gotta be an issue, too).

This article from The Journal of Emergency Medicine entitled “Screaming your Lungs Out!” A Case of Boy Band-Induced Pneumothorax, Pneumomediastinum, and Pneumoretropharyngeum warns of the effects of prolonged screaming by young women at boy band concerts.

Basically, they can scream and sing so long and so hard that lungs may spontaneously collapse, requiring immediate medical treatment.

I quote: “Spontaneous pneumothorax has been linked with multiple activities leading to acute increases in transpulmonary pressure (e.g., weightlifting, diving, and military flying). This particular case suggests that forceful screaming during pop concerts should be added to that list.”

The article references the case of a 16-year-old woman with a history of type 1 diabetes who reported to an emergency department suffering from shortness of breath. The patient reported a sudden onset of the symptoms after she spent a good portion of a One Direction concert screaming very loudly. She was diagnosed with a collapsed lung, treated and released.

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4. Going to concerts is good for you

Medical science says that going to a live music event can be very good for your health.

The Centre of Performance Science conducted a study that involved taking saliva samples from 117 people who went to two concerts. The analysis determined that their systems contained lower levels of chemicals that indicate the body is under stress (glucocorticoids and progesterone, in case you were wondering.) The study has a small sample size, but the results are good, right?

Well, sort of. Let me quote: “The study also focused solely on the effects of relatively calm, classical music; more research will be needed to ascertain whether other genres of music elicit different effects or whether attending other types of cultural events has different endocrine impact. Nevertheless, this study opens up the question of how engaging with music and the arts in cultural settings can influence biological and psychological states and, consequently, the potential of cultural events to enhance people’s broader health and well-being.”

Oh. Well, that’s different from spending a couple of hours banging your head at a metal show. But at least the researchers are open to looking at different kinds of gigs.

5. Why is music good for exercise?

Music is definitely an exercise motivator and performance enhancer. But why?

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Scientists are actually kinda stumped as to what music does to the brain in ways that benefit exercise because anytime they try to monitor what’s going on, the equipment is tricked by body movements.

Now, though, there are some clues outlined via this article at Medical Xpress:

“[R]esearchers have used portable electroencephalogram (EEG) monitoring with interference shielding technology to measure three types of brainwaves during exercise,” wrote Hayley Jarvis of Brunel University London. “This lets them compare the brain’s electrical feedback while exercising outdoors to music, a podcast, or no soundtrack at all.

“They found music rearranges the brain’s electrical frequency, causing a drop in focus but enhancing enjoyment 28 per cent more than silence and 13 per cent more than a podcast.”

In other words, you forget how tired and sore you are, so music keeps you going more vigorously. And just so you know, the song used in this study by researchers was Pharell Williams’ Happy.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.


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