What is an earworm?

An earworm is the spontaneous mental recall and repetition of a piece of music, often referred to in everyday terms as having a song stuck in one’s head. This is a common and widespread experience, reported by over 90% of people in large-scale surveys. Earworms are also called involuntary musical imagery (INMI). Ongoing research in Durham focuses on:

  • the causes & possible functions of earworms
  • using musical features to predict when & why tunes become earworms

Media coverage

Our research has been featured in a wide variety of news outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The Guardian, and The Conversation.

Kelly Jakubowski in conversation about earworms on Radio 5 Live (2016):

Research publications

Liikkanen, L. A., & Jakubowski, K. (2020). Involuntary musical imagery as a component of ordinary music cognition: A review of empirical evidence. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

  • Summary: This article comprises the most comprehensive review of previous research on earworms to date, including a thematic analysis of the content of previous studies and suggestions for future research that build directly from our current understanding of the topic.

Jakubowski, K. (2020). Musical Imagery. In A. Abraham (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Imagination (pp. 187-206). Cambridge University Press.

  • Summary: This chapter summarises previous research on voluntary and involuntary musical imagery, including everyday instances of musical imagery as well as expert uses by musicians and performers. Suggestions are made for bringing together disparate strands of research and utilising musical imagery as a tool for furthering our understanding of the human imagination.

Jakubowski, K., Bashir, Z., Farrugia, N., & Stewart, L. (2018). Involuntary and voluntary recall of musical memories: A comparison of temporal accuracy and emotional responses. Memory & Cognition.

  • Summary: This work represents the first empirical comparison of involuntary vs. deliberate recall of the same tune. It revealed that earworms are recalled no less accurately (at least in terms of tempo) than when we deliberately imagine the same song. However, earworms may have a more direct impact on our emotions than deliberately recalled music.

Jakubowski, K., Finkel, S., Stewart, L., & Müllensiefen, D. (2017). Dissecting an earworm: Melodic features and song popularity predict involuntary musical imagery. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. http:// dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000090

  • Summary: This work reveals that the likelihood that a tune becomes an earworm can be predicted by both extra-musical features (measures of song popularity and recency), as well as musical features, including the tune’s tempo and melodic contour patterns. The following playlist includes the top 9 earworm tunes named by 3,000 participants in the study:

Jakubowski, K., Farrugia, N., Halpern, A. R., Sankarpandi, S. K., & Stewart, L. (2015). The speed of our mental soundtracks: Tracking the tempo of involuntary musical imagery in everyday life. Memory & Cognition, 43, 1229-1242.

  • Summary: This work introduces a new method for measuring the tempo of earworm episodes as they occur during daily life. Results reveal that earworms for canonical tunes are recalled very close to the original, recorded tempo and earworm tempo is systematically related to features of concurrent mood (arousal/alertness).

Jakubowski, K. (2015). Investigating Temporal and Melodic Aspects of Musical Imagery. (PhD thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London).

  • Summary: The results of five experiments investigating temporal and melodic aspects of voluntary and involuntary musical imagery are reported. Together, these studies reveal new insights on the features, phenomenology, and possible functions of imagined music.

Farrugia, N., Jakubowski, K., Cusack, R., & Stewart, L. (2015). Tunes stuck in your brain: The frequency and affective evaluation of involuntary musical imagery correlate with cortical structure. Consciousness & Cognition, 35, 66-77.

  • Summary: This study is the first to reveal that aspects of brain structure correlate with earworm frequency and emotional appraisal of the earworm experience.

Liikkanen, L. A., Jakubowski, K., & Toivanen, J. M. (2015). Catching earworms on Twitter: Using big data to study involuntary musical imagery. Music Perception, 33, 199-216.

  • Summary: This study represents a novel, ‘big data’ approach to studying earworms by collating and classifying naturalistic, unprompted reports of earworm experiences on Twitter.

Williamson, V. J., Liikkanen, L. A., Jakubowski, K., & Stewart, L. (2014). Sticky tunes: How do people react to involuntary musical imagery? PLoS One, 9, e86170.

  • Summary: This study is the first large-scale investigation into the diversity and commonalities between strategies used to dispel unwanted earworms.


This research has been supported by the Leverhulme Trust (research grant awarded to Lauren Stewart, Goldsmiths, University of London) and the Society for Education, Music and Psychology Research (SEMPRE; Reg & Molly Buck award to Kelly Jakubowski).