There is No Known Cure for Earworm

There is No Known Cure for Earworm

Erik is out of the office this weeks, so we are reprinting a column from 2003.

The earworm is a fascinating creature. It shows up unexpectedly and burrows into your brain. No one knows how to get rid of it, or how it gets there in the first place. It seems to feed — even thrive — on your annoyance at its repetitive mating cries.

"It's a world of laughter; A world of tears; It's a world of hope; And a world of fears; There's so much that we share; That it's time we're aware; It's a small world after all."

Before you shriek in agony and race off, desperately looking for a neurologist or pest control professional, don't worry: "earworm" is a German word borrowed by Dr. James Kellaris, marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati. Also known as "Stuck Tune Syndrome" or the "Dear God, Please Kill Me Now Effect," an earworm is that annoying song that gets stuck in your head and won't leave. Which means you're forced to hear it over and over and over and over and over.

And over.

"It's a small world after all; It's a small world after all; It's a small world after all; It's a small, small world."

Kellaris has been researching the phenomenon since 2000, conducting several surveys to see how many people are afflicted with earworm.

"I quickly learned that virtually everybody experiences earworms at one time or another," he told the Associated Press. "I think because it's experienced privately and not often a topic of conversation, maybe people really long for some social comparison. They want to know if other people experience what they experience."

So last year, Kellaris surveyed 500 students, faculty, and staff at the University of Cincinnati. He discovered that songs like "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," Chili's restaurant "baby back ribs" jingle and "Who Let the Dogs Out" are common earworm targets.

Thanks for that, Doc. Now all three are in my head at once.

However, the number one choice was "Other," meaning most people picked a song not on the list. So Kellaris concluded that earworms are based on individual factors, like whether a person is a musician or music lover, if they're exposed to music on a regular basis, and even their level of neurosis.

"There is just one moon; And one golden sun; And a smile means friendship to everyone; Though the mountains divide; And the oceans are wide; It's a small world after all."

Kellaris actually proves the idiosyncrasy of the earworm occurrence. The former professional-Greek-Bouzouki-player-turned-professor says his own personal earworms are Byzantine chants, which made many of his colleagues wonder why Professor Hoity-Toity couldn't just hear "Y.M.C.A." like the rest of us.

However, Kellaris believes his own earworms may be a result of his wife's job as a church choir director, which caused his colleagues to hang their heads in embarrassment and mumble an apology.

Several years ago, I had my own personal earworm — a song I had heard performed by an African missionary — that came and went for several months. The song was nothing more than the guy badly singing "God Bless Africa."

He just sang the line "God Bless Africa" dozens of times before topping it off with "Feed her children; Guide her leaders." And then he sang a second, identical verse ("a little bit louder, a little bit worse"), and then a third that sounded just like the one before it.

I swore that if he launched into a fourth verse, I was either going to leave the room or tackle him right there at the pulpit, but apparently he recognized that most people had had enough, and so he saved us all (and himself) by stopping.

My regular cure for an earworm is to mentally sing the chorus of a dirty song from "The State," an MTV sketch comedy show from the mid-90s. However, I felt guilty about using a PG-13 song to get rid of a religious earworm, so I had to use "Row Row Row Your Boat," which became an earworm in itself. Then I could sing the dirty song.

Kellaris said he has received hundreds of emails from all over the world, asking for advice, and providing personal stories. There have been several suggestions on how to cure earworm, including chewing on a cinnamon stick, passing the earworm to someone else by singing it to them, or singing the theme to "Gilligan's Island."

Unfortunately, there seems to be no cure for earworm. It strikes at any time, and can be any song, commercial jingle, or music from, say, a ride at a well-known theme park that certain members of my family visited without bringing me a souvenir, so I'm forcing them to relive their own personal earworm hell.

"It's a small world after all; It's a small world after all; It's a small world after all; It's a small, small world."

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.

My NEW book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing will be coming out in September. You can get it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million in October, or get it for the Kindle or Nook now.


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