Some People Have Songs Permanently Stuck In Their Heads

“Near, far, wherever you are / I believe that the heart does go on / Once more you open the door / And you’re here in my heart / And my heart will go on and on” —Celine Dion, “My Heart Will Go On”

In A Nutshell

Ever had a song stuck in your head? That’s unfortunate, but nothing compare to people suffering from musical hallucinations: They hear songs 24/7. Thanks to overactive auditory cortices, these folks are stuck with earworms that just won’t go away.

The Whole Bushel

In 2007, Rolling Stone polled its readers on the most annoying songs of all time. After voting was finished, the magazine released a Top 20 list that included classics like “Who Let the Dogs Out,” “Macarena,” and “My Humps.” Now, can you imagine those songs stuck in your head, playing over and over? If you’re like 99 percent of the people on Planet Earth, chances are good you’ve suffered from an “earworm.” A tune gets stuck in your head, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t shake it out. You sing the lyrics or turn on your iPod in a desperate attempt to drown out your brain, but the song keeps on playing.

Of course, earworms fade away eventually, but what if they didn’t? What if you heard music nonstop, every second of every day? Believe it or not, there are quite a few people who suffer from these permanent earworms. Known as musical hallucinations, these songs sound incredibly realistic, almost like listening to a radio. In fact, startled first-time victims often ask others if they can hear the music as well. Some patients hear multiple tunes, and others only hear one song again and again. But regardless of the number, none of the victims ever hear lyrics, and the music never stops.

Curious as to what causes this mental music, Dr. Victor Aziz and Dr. Nick Warner of Wales examined 30 people suffering from these bizarre disturbances. First, they noticed most victims were elderly; the average age was about 78. More women experienced hallucinations than men, and quite a few victims were hearing-impaired. Patients heard a variety of songs, ranging from “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” to “Three Blind Mice,” but the whopping majority (two-thirds, to be precise) heard religious music like “Abide With Me.” Aziz thinks these songs aren’t exactly random. He thinks they’re tunes the patient used to listen to in younger days, and perhaps were important emotionally speaking in days gone by. (Interestingly, a second study conducted by Haggai Hermesh of Tel Aviv University noted that 41 percent of people experiencing musical hallucinations were also suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder.)

Next, doctors used PET scans to analyze their patients’ brains. Everything looked normal in the primary auditory cortex, the part of the brain that identifies pitch and loudness. It was then researchers noticed something odd about the secondary and tertiary cortices. The secondary cortex deals with harmony, melody, and rhythmic patterns while the tertiary cortex puts all the different parts together so we can process the song as a whole. And in patients suffering musical hallucinations, these two cortices were going nuts. They were acting like someone nearby had actually turned on a radio. What was going on here?

Researchers theorized that these crazy cortices were big-time workaholics. They were constantly searching for impulses, desperate for any signal they could turn into music. And when there weren’t any actual noises traveling up the ear canal, the cortices started working overtime, interpreting any signal created by the brain as music. That’s why deaf people are so susceptible to these hallucinations. They’ve been cut off from actual sound for so long that their brains were freaking out, desperately hunting for anything they could turn into a song. But it isn’t just the hard of hearing who struggle with this condition. Sometimes it starts after patients suffer epileptic seizures, contract Lyme disease, or start taking particular drugs.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot doctors can do to cure musical hallucinations. While some patients have tried antipsychotic medications, these attempts at a cure generally don’t work. Some psychiatrists think anti-OCD drugs might do the trick, but it’ll take years of testing before that idea is okayed. Really, the only thing victims can do is listen to actual music. By turning on a CD, the brain gets a chance to process actual signals, calming the secondary and tertiary cortices. Of course, if they’re hard of hearing, that isn’t going to do much good. Those patients can only pray their brains never start playing “My Heart Will Go On.”

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: Neuron Network Goes Awry, and Brain Becomes an iPod
Musical Torment
HowStuffWorks: Why do songs get stuck in my head?
Rolling Stone: The 20 Most Annoying Songs

  • cire

    also known as last song syndrome or stuck song syndrome.

  • lbatfish

    A Public Service Announcement:

    “Kids, this KN article provides yet ANOTHER reason to never watch the movie ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’!.

    This is your brain . . . and now imagine your brain hearing this song until you grow very, VERY old!”

    [Though to be fair, the song DOES save the human race by having an even deadlier effect on the killer tomatoes . . . ]

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsxwwhJ6GrY

    • Rijul Ballal

      Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’! . Is it that one with tomato’s attacking france? HBO India used to keep showing it.

    • P5ychoRaz

      Matt Cameron, the drummer from Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, wrote that song. Had no idea

      .

    • Andy West

      Still, got a better voice than Geddy Lee.

      • Hillyard

        You better hope Mom424 doesn’t read that.

        • lbatfish

          Well . . . she never took offense at the occasional assaults on the Biebs, or the Guess Who parody that I posted a few days ago . . . .

          Maybe someday somebody will slander Neil Young, and then we’ll have more data to work from.

          • lbatfish

            [Update]: Well, Andy West and I got both Celine today, but no reaction yet.

            Any volunteers for Neil Young for tomorrow?

          • Lisa 39

            Ugh, why? His voice sounds like cats or rats or squirrels under my tires, and she annoys the crap out of me, “i’m so pretty, my life is so perfect” bitch. I’m not a fan of either btw 🙂

          • lbatfish

            All of the musicians mentioned are Canadian. Which I assumed was why Hillyard mentioned Mom (another Canadian) maybe getting upset about the Geddy Lee comment.

            BTW, Mom upvoted me and Andy’s comments about Celine Dion, so I guess for her, “funny” trumps “nationality issues”. Or so I’d like to believe . . . . 🙂

          • Lisa 39

            That’s funny, i figured it was a canadian thing,

            Mom has a good sense of humor!
            I just learned how to do something new on my phone! Yay!

      • I know several Smurfs who can sing like a young Geddy Lee, but none of them plays bass like he can.

  • Michael Affleck

    Hell will be having Achy Breaky Heart stuck in your head for all eternity.

    • Hillyard

      Or Call Me Maybe.

      • P5ychoRaz

        Three Blind Mice. But I always watch 3 Stooges on Sundays so no surprise there lol

        • Mega Garchomp

          lol

        • lbatfish

          And who was YOUR favorite “third stooge”?

          • P5ychoRaz

            Geez. That’s like picking a favorite child. I enjoy them both; I never feel like I’m missing out on one or the other when watching either of them. But I suppose if I had to choose, I gotta go with Shemp.

          • Blue

            Donald Rumsfeld………

    • Culture Vulture

      Or any of the songs from the old Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…

      • Valkyrie

        The oompa loompa song….. noooooooooooooooo

    • TheMadHatter

      Friday…

      • Lisa 39

        I threatened my boys with bodily harm if they ever played that in front of me again, but the parody is frickin hilarious!

  • Hillyard

    Sounds like a terrible fate. If only some of the purveyors of the crappy pop music that has come out over the years could be sentenced to this it would be nice.

    • Zealand

      I agree with you, imagine how horrible it’d be to hear the same song over, and over, and over again.

  • UN

    Another great reason to look forward to old age

  • Check

    My students introduced this earworm to me. I’ll never forgive them:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ky3Ordfqn88

  • JRHatt

    I constantly have a song stuck in my head. While it usually changes every week, “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel has been stuck in my head for over a decade. It is a song no one can escape. It is always playing somewhere.

  • Andy West

    Mine’s always been ‘Popcorn, turns up at the worst possible times, funerals especially.

    • Valkyrie

      Funerals….the mind boggles …

  • Jake8k

    One time I dropped acid this happened to me and I kept hearing the rythm of long distance runaround by yes over and over for about 12 hours, gotta say it wasn’t terrible

  • Laryn

    But that was just a dream…
    like
    losin my religion
    I think i thought i saw you try
    but that was just a dream

    R.E.M.

    • lbatfish

      Wow! A reference to both Hobbes (pic) and REM in the same comment?!? An automatic upvote for you!

      • Andy West

        I may have run out of time but I agree. 2 thumbs up.

        • Laryn

          Thanks! This is also cool because to me it looked like my comments weren’t getting posted. So now I know they are!

          • lbatfish

            Or . . . maybe all three of us are experiencing the SAME hallucination!

  • Rae

    Thanks to you, “Breadfish” got back into my head.

  • Marozia

    Mine at the moment is ‘Michael, Row The Boat Ashore’.

  • Pookie Gibson

    This is the song that never ends, yes it goes on and on my friends ……fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu D:<

    • Lisa 39

      That was the first song i thought of when i read this lol

  • edzyl blane

    Imagine one Bieber’s songs getting stuck into your head forever…..The worst form of torture ever.

  • Jonathan Buck

    I listen to a lot of different tunes. I guess you could say that I have eclectic taste in music. Therefore, I don’t necessarily get your typical annoying songs stuck in my head. The majority of the time it’s the very last song I listened to, or something I’ve been listening to a lot of. I’m known for listening to an entire album over and over again, consecutively. Also, I’m fortunate enough to have a job where I can listen to whatever I want whenever I want. I wonder if my condition comes from music overload, in terms of variety, and over play? I actually lose sleep over this annoying brains activity. In addition, like mentioned in this article, when I’m not listening to music or a song is not repeating in my head, I find music or beats in everyday sounds and rhythms.

  • Andy Russell

    I have had songs in my head for 30 years non stop, but unlike this article, I do not actually “hear” it or think it is from the outside comin in. It is like a tune stuck in your head like others have, not a hallucination. But unlike earworms, they never go away except one time briefly a few years ago when I woke up, until I went back to sleep. I think God was showing me what it was like. I have been on medicine, had tests and no one knows. It is likely related to other conditions such as OCD or autism/asperger’s spectrum or schizoidal or whatever they say, or the brain seizures I, like my brother, had as babies. But it is not an auditory hallucination, yet I have never heard of actual earworms that never go away.