Ep. 50: Earworms: How do songs get stuck in my head, and how can I get rid of them?! with Dr. Katherine Cotter

July 7, 2020

An earworm is a song that gets stuck in your head. It’s also called “involuntary musical imagery,” and about 98 percent of us experience them. We discuss who is most susceptible to earworms, what causes them, what situations are most likely to create them, and – most important – how to get rid of them!


Katherine Cotter completed her PhD in Psychology in 2020 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she studied topics related to creativity, musical imagery, and powerful and meaningful interactions with the arts. She will be starting a position at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall to continue studying people’s experiences with the arts.


  • Earworms usually contain lyrics, not just instrumental melodies. They are equally common in men and women but last longer and are more irritating for women.
  • If you like music, you’re more susceptible to earworms.
  • Susceptibility factors include gender, exposure to music, and personality.
  • Other names: brainworm, sticky music, musical itch, stuck song syndrome. The word “Earworm” probably comes from its German counterpart “Ohrwurm.”
  • We discuss ways to get rid of earworms, such as replacing it with a different song, and distracting the mind by starting a project or focusing on something else. (Mindy’s favorite replacement songs are Aaron Neville’s “I Owe You One,” or “Sacrifice,” by Elton John. Both are soothing and seem to relax my brain.)


Other Resources


Dr. Cotter tells the story of a particularly memorable musical experience she had while in college: “I was a part of the college’s symphonic band playing the flue and for one concert we were rehearsing an instrumental version of ‘Nessun Dorma’ from the opera Turnadot. We were in the final weeks leading up to our performance and were beginning to do full runs of each piece. I can remember the first time we fully went through the piece, I was completely consumed and overwhelmed by the music and when we had completed the piece, the entire ensemble sat in silence for a few moments, all of us having a quite moving and profound experience. When I think about a lot of my work looking at these types of moving or powerful experiences, I always come back to this one instance.”

Closing Words

I hope you all had a safe and enjoyable 4th of July weekend. Here in the US we are right in the thick of summer – and here in MN we are right in the midst of a heat wave – it was 96 degrees today and very humid. I hope you are finding creative ways to enjoy and make the most of this unusual summer. Let me know how you’re enhancing your summer days with music – you can connect with me on social media, email, and my website. Thank you so much for joining me today. Until next week, may your life be enhanced with music.

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