Vermicide: how do you deal with earworms?


Warning: biodiversity content almost nil; bad language content significant.


Language fascinates me, and one of the things that I find particularly intriguing is the way in which metaphors and analogies from the natural world find their way into our writing and speech.  We talk of a “bird’s eye view” or being as “slow as a snail”; say that “from little acorns large oaks grow”, and we are as “ravenous as wolves”.

Which leads me to earworms.  Nothing to do with real worms of course, but fragments of music that worm their way into your consciousness and stay fixed there, repeating over and over and over and over…….

According to Wikipedia other names include brainworm, sticky music, stuck song syndrome, and Involuntary Musical Imagery, but I’ve always known them as earworms.  And I’ve suffered from them for as long as I can remember; typically every couple of days I’ll have part of a song stuck in my head that I can’t get rid of.  In recent days it’s been “Long-haired Lover From Liverpool” by Little Jimmy Osmond (which I heard on a Top of the Pops Christmas Special); Joni Mitchell’s “River”; and “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin that featured on a YouTube playlist on New Year’s Day.

Earworms get worse when I’m stressed or when I have a hangover: indeed if I have drunk too much the night before (a rare occurrence these days) I will wake up with a headache, nauseous, AND SOME FUCKING SONG BOUNCING LOUDLY AROUND IN MY BRAIN LIKE A KANGAROO* ON AMPHETAMINES!

At their worst these earworms can last for days and be very hard to shift.  They can also wake me up in the middle of the night and stop me from getting back to sleep.  The only method that I’ve found that can suppress them is to sing another song to myself that masks the offending song.  After much experimentation I find that “In My Time of Dying”, another Led Zeppelin track, is the most effective, perhaps because it’s slow and not especially catchy.

(Bugger, my son James is tidying his bedroom and playing music and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” has just come on – almost guaranteed to get stuck in my head!)

If you also suffer badly from earworms I’d be interested to know what methods you use to shift the little blighters: what works for you?


*See what I did there?

12 thoughts on “Vermicide: how do you deal with earworms?

  1. Clem

    Interesting… I occasionally suffer from this, but I can’t say I’ve ever been woken by one. Also interesting that Led Zeppelin is your go-to for relief sometimes. Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’, can work for me. At the opposite end I need to avoid The Beatles “Hey Jude’… I can’t even type that one without kicking myself for doing so. Another remedy I’ve used is to concentrate on a lyric free song like ‘Jessica’ by the Allman Brothers. At least with no lyrics I can still carry on if the melody is all the worm has to offer [though once I walked through the kitchen playing air-guitar to otherwise complete silence… and my daughter looked at me with such disdain… “Earworm… Allman Brothers”, only earned me a smidgeon of acceptance. Oh well].

  2. John Sinclair

    Yup, I get the middle of the night thing too; usually just a line or two over and over and over again! Most recent one was “Little Donkey” courtesy of our lovely granddaughter rehearsing for her school nativity. I’ve never found a way of shaking them, so can’t help on that score.

  3. Emily Scott

    Sorry to hear they trouble you so. Occasionally a song gets stuck in my head but usually that’s because I enjoy it and so it’s pleasurable. If anything I have the reverse problem and struggle to recall tunes. You must have a very good audio memory – it may seem like a curse but perhaps it benefits you in other aspects of your life.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Emily, that’s a good point. I’ve got a very good memory for seemingly random facts, and for species names (though not people’s names – what does that say about me?!) And I can carry thoughts about research ideas, writing, etc. around in my head for days before finally committing them to paper, by which time they have often turned into non-musical earworms. Mixed blessings 🙂

  4. ScientistSeesSquirrel

    I once spent several days driving around Vancouver Island with a couple of friends (field work) playing what we called the “earworm game”. We decided that the only way to displace one earworm was to come up with a more insidious one, and the last earworm standing was the “winner”. (If I recall correctly, it was The Copacabana). What was really astonishing is just how many songs one might know a few lines of – or at least, can sing enough of to get them thoroughly stuck in one’s head…

  5. naturalistoncall

    Instead of substituting another melody, I concentrate on the sound of hand-planing a nice board to a finish smooth enough to immediately apply varnish. No melody, just a quiet ssssswwwwwiiiiisssshhhhhhhh.


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