Mamma Mia, here I go again!… And just like that I have another song stuck in my head, and with any luck, I’ll be singing it under my breath for the next couple hours. But why? Why do songs get stuck in our heads? Also, why can I remember the lyrics to “Cheerleader” better than the dates on my social studies test? Could songs help treat Alzheimer’s patients?
The song you’ve had stuck in your head all morning is what neuroscientists like to call “earworms”. Often, they are songs that are melodically and rhythmically simple. And, In most cases, it is only a section of the song. Buzzfeed has a list of 21 songs that are guaranteed to get stuck in your head, including “Friday” by Rebecca Black and “Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles. One read through the list had me singing away, and left me with “Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show on repeat in my head.
So, what exactly causes earworms? They’re not completely sure, but there is one popular theory among scientists, including Daniel Levitin, a phycologist who studies the neuroscience of music at McGill University in Montréal. Earworms might be caused by neural circuits getting stuck in a repeating loop, causing the song to play over and over and over again in your head.
So, why do we remember songs so well anyways? Most scientists agree that remembering tunes must have been an evolutionary advantage for our ancestors. According to Livitin: “Structures that respond to music in the brain evolved earlier than the structure that responds to language.” Archeologists have found bone flutes that date from forty to eighty thousand years old, and it is more likely than not that we started singing long before we created the first instrument. Before developing a written language, our ancestors needed a way to remember information important to their survival, such as where to find berries, or fresh water. Singing songs about the information helped preserve it, and allowed the information to be passed from generation to generation.
Not only does music have an interesting past, it also holds a promising future. Music Therapy is being used more and more frequently to help Alzheimer’s patients. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America music can “shift [the] mood” of and “stimulate positive interactions” in Alzheimer’s patients.
In a study conducted by cognitive scientist Matthew Schulkind, when Alzheimer’s patients listened to music, they were able to remember famous names and faces such as past celebrities or presidents. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America also says that popular “top forty” songs from a patient’s youth are most likely to evoke “the strongest responses” and have “the most potential for engagement [from the patient].” According to researcher Linda Maguire, the reason why music therapy has been known to work well in Alzheimer’s patients, is because “Two of the last remaining abilities in [Alzheimer’s] patients,” are “musical aptitude,” and the “appreciation [of music].” These abilities are often present in patients in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, even when they have lost all verbal skills.
Music is a part of what makes us human. It has helped us remember things. We have evidence that humans were making music over forty thousand years ago. Music also has a promising future for treating Alzheimer’s patients. So the next time you have a song stuck in your head, take a minute to think about just how fascinating the science of music is before you grumble about it.