Quality of the song in your head...

Celebrating my 100th post with a question thread:
What are the neurological implications of the “song stuck in your head” phenomenon?

Can we isolate this peculiar (and often annoying) phenomenon to a specific part of the brain? Why does it happen? Is it the same for everyone? Let’s see if we can get a consensus here. I’ll start.

I personally have experienced several different forms of this, and have made an effort to note the characteristics of each:

  1. Lyrics stuck–Intelligible, catchy, but largely tuneless lyrics play in a loop. I can’t hum the tune that goes with them.

  2. Tune stuck–Whole song plays in my head, lyrics and all, but I can’t understand or repeat the lyrics.

  3. Song stuck–Whole song plays; I can understand and repeat the lyrics. This usually happens with songs to which I already know the lyrics.

  4. Category stuck–This one is really weird: a whole medley of music from one category plays in my head. I recently spent over an hour listening to jazz and big-band music in my head, wishing I could get to sleep. That experience inspired this post.

Typically, if I hear anything other than the lyrics, I hear everything. If the 1812 Overture gets stuck, I hear everything from trumpets to cannons. I also generally hear a repeat of the first version I heard–if it had tape hiss, crackles, or was live with sour notes, I hear all of those. (This makes me very greatful for the development of CDs, BTW.)

None of this happens to me with anything other than music or–very rarely–tactile sensations. It strikes me as a significant memory phenomenon, so let’s see what we can make of it.

I have gotten ‘stuck’ on a song before, but not an entire movement from a symphony. My tape must be shorter than yours.

Have you recently (one day or less) listened to the music that your mind plays? Do you listen to music through headphones? Do you ever fall asleep listening to music? What kind of medications, vitamin or mineral supplements, etc. do you take? Do you listen to music while you are concentrating particularly hard?

Stuff I get stuck on is often something I heard recently, but not always–sometimes, it’s stuff I haven’t heard in years. I do have a peculiarly acute music memory–I sometimes memorize entire songs as I hear them the first time (not intentionally, though). Thus, I may just be an extreme case–I’m looking for a representative sample. If we can work out which part of the brain is responsible, at least I’ll know what part of my head to hit next time–is it right-brain or left-brain, or somewhere else entirely?

I don’t use headphones, fall asleep listening to music, or take any dietary supplements except vit. C and a multivitamin. Sometimes I listen to music when I’m concentrating hard.

Once upon a time, the “stuck song” that ran through my head often corresponded with what was happening to me or around me at that time. Later, though, I’ll I ever get is some kids song straight from Disney Channel. And I’m sure I will go mad eventually. After all, insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids.

One surefire cure to remove a tune, melody or song that is stuck in your head is the following: Sing one verse and one chorus of “It’s a Samall World”. That’s it. Whatever was in your head before will have completely disappeared. Of course, ‘Small World’ will be stuck in your head, but it will go away eventually. I think.

That way lies madness, Hedgemeister. There are very few things that wouldn’t rather have stuck than “It’s a Small World”. A rousing chorus of “Dying Whimpers” or “Fingernails & Chalkboards LIVE”, perhaps…

I usually have a song stuck in my head. Right now I don’t, probably because I just woke up.
But usually it’s triggered by context, and the quality is everything (all lyrics, instruments, background noises) though sometimes only a small selection in time. By triggered in context, I mean that the song that gets stuck is usually relevant, however tenuously, to events that are happening.

When I found out that one of my neighbors was named “Love”, I got Luscious Jackson’s “Love is here” stuck. When talking to my friend Cath the day before she was moving in, I got Velvet Chain’s “Come to me” stuck.
Yesterday I bought an Ani DiFranco CD (It’s still unopened, I just bought it to so that she’d get some money for all that music I’ve enjoyed via mp3), and I had “Not a Pretty Girl” in my head.

One thing I’ve noticed: the songs that get in my head are the ones I like. Gilligan’s Island or It’s a Small world slide out like oiled teflon.

I often get songs stuck in my head, though I rarely mind. Often I can’t hear them quite clearly til I think about it, then I get frustrated til I figure out which song is in my head, then I’m fine. Sometimes one song will slide into another if they have sections that are musically similar, that can be annoying. Also some songs are stickier than others, “It’s a Small World” as mentioned seems tobe a good example for most people and “This is the Song that Never Ends” and most of my friends find Moxy Fruvous’ “King of Spain” to be a very sticky song. Anyone know what makes one song stickier than another? I think bouncier songs stick better.

I can’t provide any reason for this, however my wife and I often play a game called “Bad Song of the Day”. When either one of us has a bad song in our heads, we are sure to share it with the other. The experience is enhanced by the bad top-forty radio our children listen two. We have things running through our head we can’t even describe. So it is easy to infect another person with a bad song whether they have any in their mind at the time or not. It is also easy to supplant one bad song with another, if one is unbearable enough.

My WAG on this is that if the song has a ‘March’ cadence to it; that is, it’s a song you can march to. I’m not sure why that is, but ‘Small World’, ‘Song that Never Ends’ and another of my frequent stickers, ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ are all of the marching cadence variety. I suppose it’s because in our daily life, we sometimes fall into a pattern of motion that falls into a repetitious pattern, and our mind associates the beat of our movements with the beat of a song we have heard.

The Zen masters, clever lads that they are, had a particular trick they liked to use to demonstrate to a novice his lack of control over his own mind. They would just say, “Don’t think of an elephant,” and of course the image of an elephant would at least flash through your mind for an instant.

When it comes to getting songs stuck in your head, my inner disc jockey seems to be stuck on two dreadful bubble-gum songs from the 60’s: the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” and the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “Yummy Yummy Yummy (I Got Love in my Tummy).” It gets stuck on other songs, too, but these keep coming back year after year after year. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen too often or I’d have killed myself by now. :slight_smile:

I noticed a couple of years ago that whatever I listened to right before I left for class in the morning (usually right after waking up and while still in a very sleep state) would pretty much be there for the day. I discovered that I could even get something stuck playing in my head by first “playing” it conciously.

Lately I haven’t noticed any particular patterns, but often it’s one piece of classical or another. Just as I read this thread, for example, I noticed that I was moving my foot in time to a Bach organ fugue that I really like, but haven’t listened to in a while. I seem to be stuck on on 30-second or so segment of it, though (took me a while to figure out which one it is). I have no idea how it got to playing, but that’s often how it is with me–they pop up even if I haven’t heard the song/piece in a while.

Usually they disappear overnight, but not always. I can recall one particularly maddening three-day period in ninth grade when I had a 5 second or so bit of a Green Day song stuck in my head. If I’m slightly insane today, I would suspect that as the root cause.

I must say Im deaf with a speech discrimination of zippo. But songs all play so clear in the head.

All right! We’re getting somewhere. It seems that strongly rhythmic, bright-toned songs stick best. That jibes with my own experiences; my worst-stuck ever was Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, which was fast, rhymed, and very rhythmic. I get lots of other stuff stuck, though. Some of us stick songs they like, others stick songs they don’t like, and some can stick songs at will.

Now let’s work the left-brain/right-brain part of this. When you get a song to which you don’t know the lyrics stuck (like some of your kids’ music, gapcity), can you understand or repeat the words? In other words, are your speech centers involved in the memory? Also, does anyone else ever get just the lyrics stuck?

Oh oh! mememememe! I often get only the lyrics in my head. They are very exact, with same inflictions and stuff as the original, so it is not like I am just singing songs to myself.
I think it must have to do with the fact that I have no background in music or muscial talent whatsoever. Perhaps the music part just doesnt seem as important to me. When the song in my head do included music, it is often just the guitar and drums, no bass. And sometimes the music is rendered in the equivelent of “la la la la” or humming along or soemthing.
It may also have to do that I mainly listen to real bad punk rock. As a matter of fact, that explains a lot.
I was wondering about the sound quality of the music in our head. Does it compare to CDs? Can anyone control the “volume” of it? (I can’t…a song is either there or it isnt). Is my brain better than the fancy personal MP3 player I bought?

The original post claimed that this phenomenon seemed to be limited to music.

Now, I get songs stuck in my head all the time. However, if I play a monotonous video game like Tetris for a long period of time, the visuals of that game will gon on in my mind for hours. And I do mean hours. I have had continous games of Tetris in my mind that lasted days.

I’m not sure how relevant that is to the phenomenon at hand, but I thought it was interesting.


If I can remember the whole song, then running through it in it’s entirety seems to clear it out of my mind. Of course, if it’s from an album I’m familiar with, then sometimes I move on to the next track and get stuck on that one.

If I’m stuck on only a little piece of the song, I’m doomed, the needle just keeps skipping.

I don’t have a visual equivalent of this, greyseal, but I find it interesting. I do sometimes get tactile/kinesthetic flashbacks, but they’re usually not repetitious.

As for the sound quality, sven, it typically matches either the first time I heard the song, or the most recent time. So sometimes it’s CD quality, and sometimes it sucks. I can usually control the volume, but not much else. Lack of a musical background might account for the relative lack of accompaniment in your stuck songs; people with training in music usually become accustomed to keeping track of more separate musical themes simultaneously. When I get lyrics stuck, I get no tune at all–just a monotone repetition of the words <ugh!>. I wonder if that’s a separate memory phenomenon?

Well, I’ve been paying more attention to this since yesterday…

I generally “hear” stuff in full detail–never just lyrics to a song,–and with classical I can pick out most details, including instruments and voices that aren’t contributing to the melody or strongly to the harmony.

If I don’t know (understand) the lyrics, I hear it as it sounds to me, without distinct words.

And for me, I don’t notice any particular tendency towards faster/stronger songs. Right now it’s a very slow U2 song that somebody was playing as I walked out of my apartment this morning. The most infuriating ones for me on a regular basis are when I am learning a new piano or organ piece, and one part (or sometimes two on the organ, pedal and one hand) gets stuck playing in my head at the same speed I was playing it, i.e. veeeeerrrryyyy sssslllloooowwwwllllyyy.

When you do understand the lyrics, do you ever get the impression that they’re sort of on a separate track? That part of your mind is stuck on the music, and another part is filling in or interpreting words? I can generally only distinguish lyrics in songs that I have the lyrics memorized for; otherwise, they’re just sounds.