Why Songs Get Stuck in Your Head

by Rachel Baker on January 17, 2014

Every wonder why songs get stuck in your head? Well, here’s the science behind it.

Few people are spared the occasional experience of being gripped by the obstinate unfolding of an imagined line of music. Although the sound might not exist at the present moment in the real world, or be audible to anyone else, it can seem compellingly, maddeningly real. An episode of this sort often seems more like the reliving of a tune than the simple remembering of it.

If I remember hearing a concert performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony, the memory might include something about the hall, the view from my seat, how many movements there were, the perfume of someone in the row behind me, a bit of lush orchestral timbre, and the expressive resonance of the piece. But if the second theme gets stuck in my head, it’s a totally different experience—I seem not to remember, but rather to rehear the entire thing. A quality that distinguishes it from most imaginings as well as most memories is its repetitiveness: Once the tune comes to an end, it loops around and starts playing again from the beginning.

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