Jul 10, 2010

Hey Jude: Get that song out my head!

Some 98 to 99 per­cent of the popula­t­ion has, at some point, been “in­fect­ed” with a song they just can’t seem to shake off, re­search­ers say. This com­mon phe­nom­e­non has sel­dom been stud­ied, un­til An­dréane McNally-Gagnon, a doc­tor­al stu­dent in psy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­vers­ity of Mont­real, de­cid­ed to ex­am­ine the is­sue in an on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion.

In most cases, the per­sist­ent tunes, known as ear­worms, let go their grip af­ter a few min­utes. In some cases, ear­worms can last hours or even days. McNally-Gagnon is al­so a mu­si­cian, who is of­ten in­fected, which is why she wanted to bet­ter un­der­stand how and why it oc­curs.

McNally-Gagnon asked French-speaking In­ter­net users to rank 100 pop songs ac­cord­ing to their ten­dency to be com­pul­sively re­peat­ed with­in one’s mind. The top five were: Sing­ing in the Rain (Gene Kel­ly), Live Is Life (Opus), Don’t Wor­ry, Be Hap­py (Bob­by Mc­Fer­rin), I Will Sur­vive (Glo­ria Gay­nor) and—in first place—a song un­known to many Eng­lish speakers, Ça fait rire les oiseaux by Car­ib­be­an sensa­t­ion La Com­pa­gnie Créole. (A com­plete list is pub­lished at www.brams.org).

In the lab­o­r­a­to­ry, McNally-Gagnon and her the­sis di­rec­tor Sylvie Hébert, pro­fes­sor at the Uni­vers­ity of Mont­real School of Speech Ther­a­py and Au­di­ol­o­gy and a mem­ber of the In­terna­t­ional Lab­o­r­a­to­ry for Brain, Mu­sic and Sound Re­search, asked 18 mu­si­cians and 18 non-mu­si­cians to hum and rec­ord their ob­ses­sive songs and note their emo­tion­al state be­fore and af­ter. The re­search­ers found ear­worm in­fec­tions last long­er with mu­si­cians than with non-mu­si­cians.

The phe­nom­e­non oc­curs when sub­jects are usu­ally in a pos­i­tive emo­tion­al state and keep­ing busy with non-intellectual ac­ti­vi­ties such as walk­ing, which re­quires lit­tle con­centra­t­ion, the re­search­ers said. “Per­haps the phe­nom­e­non oc­curs to pre­vent brood­ing or to change moods,” said Hébert.

The study al­so found that au­di­tive mem­o­ry in peo­ple can ac­cu­rately rep­li­cate songs. Hum­ming among mu­si­cians was only one key off orig­i­nal rec­ordings, while non-mu­si­cians were off by two keys.

McNally-Gagnon and Hébert now plan to study ear­worms us­ing brain scans. “The only such stud­ies that have been con­ducted were on test sub­jects who men­tally im­ag­ined a song,” said Hébert. “We be­lieve the neu­ro­lo­g­i­cal pro­cess is dif­fer­ent with ear­worms, be­cause the phe­nom­e­non is in­vol­un­tary.”




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