music stuck in my head

Do you have vivid memories of a fun road trip or a night out on the town with your friends? Do you ever get a song stuck in your head from that fun event and you can’t stop thinking about it? I have a secret to tell you. It wasn’t the road trip or the club that you remember so vividly— it was the music. Today, music is everywhere, streaming at work in your web browser or streaming to your phone anywhere. Read this simple trick to learn how you can harness the power of music stuck in your head to use as brain super fuel in your daily life.

Why does music get stuck in your head?

It’s called involuntary musical imagery, or “earworms.” I don’t like the idea of a worm, so I am going to call involuntary music imagery a "mental music loop". Mental music loops tend to be a little fragment of a catchy song, often the chorus, that just plays and replays on loop in your head.

In a recent study at the University of Western Sydney, Bailes studied what people imagined and why they imagined it, when they experienced mental music loops in their head. Two aspects of mental music loops have been studied for some time including (i) ones occurring outside your attention and (ii) ones occurring in your conscious awareness upon which you have some mental control over. It is this latter category that you should be most interested in—how can you use mental music loops to your advantage?

Why we accompany everyday events in our lives with music is a puzzling question. Does it enhance your experience of everyday things? Is it because you just heard a song recently and your brain is still processing it? Or do you subconsciously use music for your own mood regulation or, in other words, to trigger emotions you want to feel? For me, mental music loops usually pump me up, so I tend to believe that I use mental music for my own emotion regulation. Particularly, mental music loops help me turn my boring days into awesome ones!

Make mental music loops work for you

music loops

Bailes set out to answer this question: whether one of the many possible reasons to imagine music during the course of daily life is to regulate mood. By looking to whether there is a mood congruence between actual music listening episodes and mental music loop episodes, the researchers could learn if mental music loops are in fact a means you use to regulate your emotions.

The findings are interesting. First, historically, people associate mental music loops more with travel and social situations. Why? Because prior to the age of music everywhere with streaming music to your web browser or on your phone, music was primarily listened to in the car or at bars and clubs (i.e., while socializing). Second, people have little conscious personal choice about the music that gets stuck in their head. So you are right in your thinking, music does get "stuck" in your head whether you like it or not. Mental music loops are primarily a matter of the subconscious.

So you ask, "why should I care about any of this if I can't control it?" Because you can control your environment. I have been testing my theory and I think I have a solution—maximum exposure & music note taking.

Music is brain super fuel between 11AM and 1PM

Let's take a look at the strongest finding from the Bailes study on mental music loops:

Between 11AM and 1PM, when working people had been already exposed to some events during the day that could trigger mental music loops and they were most likely to be really awake with a heightened level of arousal, participants experienced the most mental music loops.

I did two things to use this to my advantage. First, whenever I experienced a mental music loop that pumped me up (my involuntary brain decided this without consulting me), I would go to Amazon Prime Music, buy the song and take notes as to what I was doing when the mental music loop got stuck in my head. For example, while researching I kept hearing Calvin Harris - Think About You (from 18 Months), so I took note of the mental music moment. Second, whenever I am having problems focusing on my research, I just play Calvin Harris - Think About You (from 18 Months) and I am sucked into a mental focus zone that my brain told me it needed to make research less boring. And it works!

This is most interesting part—I didn’t decide which song helps me focus, I let my emotional brain decide (involuntary) and it told me exactly what it liked to energize it for researching through the mental music loops that got stuck in my head.

That’s my suggestion for you. Listen for your mental music loops, take note of what you are doing when you can’t get a song out of your head, and then turn that involuntary process (which can be really annoying if you are trying to control it through pure mental force) into fuel for you brain to accomplish your tasks. You have just turned an enemy into a friend.

Make the music work for you and let go of your desire to be in complete control of your emotional brain (you can't do it anyways); instead, listen to your brain and work with it.

Put simpler

Mental music loops, or earworms, are communications from your emotional brain to your higher brain about what your mind needs to get through boring tasks. Don’t fight it; use it to your advantage. Now when a song gets stuck in your head, you’ll turn it into your superpower and your coworkers will think you’re invincible.

Clay for SndControl

See Bailes, F. (March 2015). An experience sampling study of what and when, towards an understanding of why. Music in mind? Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 25(1), 58-68.

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