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earworm also sticky tune

noun [countable]

a song or tune that a person hears repeatedly in their head

'They bore into your head. They won't let go. There's no known cure. Earworms can attack almost anyone at any time. … Earworms are those songs, jingles and tunes that get stuck into your head …'

Daniel DeNoon, Lycos Health 27th February 2003

top earworm candidates are … 'Who Let The Dogs Out' by the group Baha Men, Abba's 'Dancing Queen' and 'We Will Rock You' by Queen

At last, a word to describe something that we've all been mentally tortured by at some stage in our lives! We all know that feeling of hearing a particularly catchy tune on the radio and then being plagued by it for the rest of the day. Now we've finally got a way to refer to it instead of talking about 'this song which keeps going round and round in my head'. James J. Kellaris PhD, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati in the United States, gave a presentation on the subject of earworms at a meeting of the Society for Consumer Psychology in February 2003. Kellaris claimed that nearly 98% of people have had songs stuck in their head at one time or other. His research indicates that 74% of earworms are related to songs with lyrics, 15% are jingles (short musical phrases) used in advertising, and 11% are tunes without words.

The compound earworm attack has been coined to refer to episodes of this phenomenon, which usually last several hours and occur very frequently across the sample of 559 students questioned. Musicians and music lovers suffer more frequent and longer-lasting earworm attacks, with people who have 'neurotic habits' such as tapping fingers or biting pencils also being particularly susceptible.

Top earworm candidates in popular music are songs like 'Who Let The Dogs Out' by the group Baha Men, Abba's 'Dancing Queen' and 'We Will Rock You' by Queen.

Background – earworm, earworm attack and sticky tune

The term earworm derives from a literal translation of the German word Ohrwurm, which has been used to describe such 'cognitively infectious' pieces of music. The parasitic connotations of the word relate to its original meaning: an earworm is a kind of worm which can crawl into the ear, and also denotes a large, highly destructive larva which feeds on corn and cotton crops.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 13th June 2003.

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