Many working people describe the endless loop of piped-in music in their shops, offices, restaurants, supermarkets, and hotel reception areas like the grating of nails scratching on an old, dry chalkboard.
One Starbucks employee wrote on Reddit that a song in their store’s repeating playlist felt worse than having “steam wands” shoved in the ears.
“That would be less painful than that song,” wrote icedquadblonde about one year ago.
Another commenter on the thread sympathized.
“This land is NOT your land. I swear….I might just have to kill someone if I continue to hear that song multiple times during a shift,” Silver-Gold-Fish added.
Customers are typically not in a store or café long enough to hear a complete program loop, but staff members may hear the same songs multiple times during a shift, day after day. Some chains have chosen not to play ambient music. Many Target and most Wal-Mart stores skip background tunes, wrote Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America: A Coalition to Promote Quiet.
“Regarding Target: I regret to report that they have installed Muzak in all the stores they are remodeling,” Rueter said. “The non-remodeled stores remain Muzak-free.”
It is widely thought that targeted, programmed music will stimulate customers’ purchasing behavior, and slower selections may encourage patrons to linger at a restaurant and order another beverage or dessert. But the outcomes for workers may include mood changes, frustration from the lack of control of sounds in their environment, and exposure to repeated “catchy” songs that create earworms even after leaving work.
Muzak was founded in 1934
Piped-in music has been around a lot longer than you might have thought.
“Major General George O. Squier served as the Army’s Chief Signal Officer during World War I, and in the early 1920s he perfected a method for transmitting music across electrical wires,” wrote Ethan Trex on MentalFloss.com. “At the time, radio was still finding its footing, so the notion of sending businesses and residences music via wires was appealing. In 1934 Squier formally founded a company to develop his invention. Since he liked the sound of the name ‘Kodak’ he borrowed from it to name his own company Muzak.”
The company patented programs of instrumental music about 15 minutes in length and called them Stimulus Progression. The purpose was to create a kind of unconscious forward movement for listeners, and prompt workers to be more productive.
“In retrospect, the science behind these Stimulus Progression studies may have been a bit dubious, but it really helped Muzak franchise and sell subscriptions to businesses,” Trex wrote.
The company employed “audio architects” to design music programs for client-specific goals — from increasing worker productivity to motivating shoppers into buying more stuff. Since then, Mood Media has acquired Muzak. Additional companies have also sprung up, offering various programmed or curated music products, such as Cloud Cover Music and others.
Background music is often out of employees’ control
Jessica Grahn, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada, studies the neuroscience of music. She was interviewed by Anna Maria Tremonti on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Radio show, The Current in February 2019. Grahn contrasted the experience of hearing sounds with choosing images — we can close our eyes to something we do not want to see.
“’Because we can’t close our ears, it’s very effective if somebody else has control of our sonic environment,’” Grahn said during the radio program. “’We can do nothing about that, and that can be pretty debilitating.’”
Grahn added that managers may decide to increase employee ownership for ambient music by having a conversation about the reasons songs are selected for a playlist, and giving staffers a measure of choice in changing or reordering the selections.
“’I think when people have input or a sense of being listened to, that control actually makes a very big difference in their response to what they’re listening to,’” Grahn added during the interview.
Music is tied to movement
The human brain processes music very much like it handles movement.
In her research, Grahn decided to use MRI brain scanning to examine the areas of the brain that light up in response to rhythm alone, and to rhythm in music.
Scans revealed that regions of the brain responsible for the initiation and control of movement were active even when study participants were staying physically still.
“The exact same motor areas are responding, so rhythm seems to drive motor area responses whether it’s in the context of tone sequences or in the context of music,” Grahn said in her 2013 TEDx Waterloo talk. “This suggests that music is not just about sound but also fundamentally about movement.”
Aniruddh Patel, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Tufts University in Massachusetts, agrees that music is in large part tied to movement.
“And when you think about it, vocal learning demands a tight auditory feedback between hearing and vocal output — you’ve got to listen to yourself and constantly gauge if you’re producing what you want to produce — in other words, between the auditory and the motor system,” he said in his lecture Music and the Mind. “So, this leads to an idea. Perhaps we move to the beat because a key brain structure involved in timing of beats, the basal ganglia, is also involved in motor control. And because of vocal learning, the same structure creates a strong connection between auditory input and motor output.”
Background music may reduce focus
Cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has written the book, “This is Your Brain on Music.” He was interviewed in 2016 by Shana Lebowitz for Business Insider.
“He cited a growing body of research suggesting that, in almost every case, your performance on intellectual tasks (think reading or writing) suffers considerably when you listen to music,” Lebowitz wrote.
Instead, he recommends listening to music for 10–15 minutes before starting to work, because music you enjoy boosts mood and may make it easier to focus, due to the pleasure hormone serotonin.
“Unfortunately, Levitin said, listening to music also takes up some of your attentional capacity, meaning that if you listened to it while working, you’d have fewer resources left to direct toward the task at hand,” Lebowitz added.
For monotonous and simple tasks, though, Levitin said in the article that music can alleviate boredom and thus help an individual pay more attention to the repetitive task at hand.
Annoying music is proven to reinforce a negative mood
Jaden Ganser and Fareen Huda, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse conducted a study examining whether uplifting music and lyrics could create a positive mood and if antisocial music could worsen a bad mood. Participants were grouped into different music conditions such as no music, uplifting music, annoying music, music with prosocial lyrics, and music with antisocial lyrics. Uplifting music consisted of popular songs with an upbeat tempo. Annoying music had no lyrics, was computer generated, and sounded repetitive.
“Mood scores for participants in the prosocial lyrics and uplifting music conditions became more positive and less negative,” Ganser and Huda wrote. “In contrast, mood scores for participants in the antisocial lyrics and annoying music conditions became less positive and more negative. Mood scores for the control condition (no music) became both less positive and less negative.”
In other words, upbeat music and tunes that you like will lift your mood, while brash lyrics or selections you don’t like can worsen your mood. No music at all can result in your positive mood becoming less positive, or a negative mood turning less negative.
Repetitive music can cause earworms
Have you ever easily and dependably remembered a string of facts — such as state capitals, or numbers in a different language — because they were set to a tune?
Victoria Williamson, Ph.D., lecturer in music psychology and director of the Music and Wellbeing research center at University of Sheffield, U.K., presented a talk, The Music of Memory, at TEDMEDLive Imperial College in 2013. Music helps you remember information better because it has structures that you already know, like melodies and rhythms, she said in her talk. When an individual brings up a structure, the items associated with various parts of the structure come along for the ride.
“These inbuilt structures allow experts like (Italian conductor Arturo) Toscanini to string hundreds, thousands of notes together based on their own knowledge,” Williamson said. “So, for example instead of seeing a string of twenty-four notes, Toscanini might see three upward scales of C-major ending in a perfect cadence. That’s just one thing now to remember instead of 24.”
But along with this memory benefit comes a drawback; snippets of songs can get unintentionally stuck in your mind.
“At least 90% of people report experiencing this phenomena at least once a week — we call it involuntary musical imagery,” she added. “In the press, they often call it earworms.”
A large percentage of the music we hear in our modern world is recorded, with each vocal inflection and guitar riff sounding exactly the same each time.
“Fences are visually repetitive, for example, but each time you see the same fence you will look at it from a different angle, or in different light,” wrote Tom Stafford, resident psychologist at the BBC. Put a song on your stereo and the sound comes out virtually identical each time. Remembering is powerfully affected by repetition, so maybe the similarity of music engraves deep grooves in our mind. Grooves in which earworms can thrive.”
Earworms can be caused by recent exposure to catchy songs
“Radio listeners and web visitors were invited to fill in an online form or email the station about their latest earworm experience and the circumstances that preceded it,” wrote Christian Jarrett in BPS Research Digest. “Just over 600 participants provided all the information that was needed for a detailed analysis.”
The most common trigger found by Williamson’s team was having recently listened to a specific song, although earworms were also brought on by mental associations, memories, anticipation of concerts, moods, and “low attention states,” — for example being bored, or asleep.
A few years later, Williamson together with Georgia Floridou and Lauren Stewart wrote a paper comparing differing levels of attention and earworm development. It was published online in 2016 by the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
“This new evidence supports the idea that one important factor that predicts an earworm experience that originates from music exposure is the existence of a wandering mind state in the period of time shortly after the music is heard,” she wrote on MusicPsychology.co.uk. “It appears that a diffuse state of mental attention at this point in time provides fertile mental soil in which an earworm can embed itself within our conscious focus.”
Earworms can also start playing after hearing an old familiar tune, or when you are stressed.
“Hearing The Village People’s ‘YMCA’ can get the mental tape rolling,” wrote Gary Stix on the Scientific American blog. “Other head music may be induced by a memory from summer camp, the stresses of work or simply the boredom of office meetings.”
Researchers and writers sometimes call earworms, or involuntary musical imagery (INMI), sticky music or stuck song syndrome.
Alison McCook wrote the 2003 article, “Song Stuck in Your Head? You’re Not Alone” for Reuters Health.
According to James Kellaris, Ph.D., Gemini Chair of Signage and Visual Marketing at the University of Cincinnati, there are some catchy songs that are more likely to get stuck in your thoughts, but even so, everyone has their own personal list of earworms, McCook wrote. He questioned close to 560 participants about factors such as how often they experienced the phenomena, how long earworms lasted, and when the sound imagery most frequently occurred.
“Ninety-eight percent of respondents said they had experienced stuck songs,” McCook wrote. “Most said the episodes occurred ‘frequently,’ and lasted an average of a few hours. Songs with lyrics were most often the culprits, a trend that Kellaris said is not surprising. Often what gets sticky is not just a tune, but also lyrics, a trend he calls ‘stupid lyrics syndrome.’ Combining a tune and lyrics ups the chance of song snippets staying with the listener for hours, he said.”
Musical characteristics of sticky tunes
A large study on INMI was undertaken at Durham University, in the U.K., led by Kelly Jakubowski, Ph.D.
“The study has shown that songs that get stuck in your head — called earworms or involuntary musical imagery — are usually faster, with a fairly generic and easy-to-remember melody but with some unique intervals such as leaps or repetitions that set it apart from the ‘average pop song,'” posted Durham University on its website. “Prime examples of earworms named in the study include ‘Bad Romance’ by Lady Gaga, ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey, and perhaps not surprisingly ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ by Kylie Minogue.”
Tunes found most sticky were those with an easily singable melodic shape such as the rising and falling pitches in phrases of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” combined with something unusual like an unexpected melodic leap or more repeated pitches than a typical pop song, Durham University posted.
“Ninety per cent of us get a song stuck in our heads playing on an endless loop at least once a week,” according to Durham. “It normally happens at times when the brain is not doing much such as in the shower, whilst walking or doing chores.”
There are strategies to dissolve earworms
Susana Martinez-Conde wrote the article “5 Ways to Get Rid of Earworms, According to Science,” posted on MentalFloss.com.
The five strategies she listed included the following:
- Engage with the offending tune, listen and pay attention to the whole song instead of just the repeating snippet; find out the name of the song and the artist.
- “Cure tunes” can help to control earworms; “Happy Birthday to You,” Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” and others.
- Spoken text may replace the sticky sung lyrics, and some individuals use conversation, reading, meditation, prayer, or TV to alleviate earworms.
- “In a 2015 study, researchers suspected that the act of chewing gum might interfere with the formation of the auditory imagery needed to experience an earworm,” Martinez-Conde wrote.
- Let earworms be, and they will dissipate fairly quickly.
One cure tune named was the U.K.’s “God Save the Queen.” In the U.S., “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” is based on the same melody.
Dr. Srini Pillay has voiced a caution for those experiencing INMI.
A persistent earworm that lasts longer than 24 hours should be brought up with your doctor, he wrote in the Harvard Medical School health blog. These may be a sign of a more serious illness, and a physician can provide appropriate medical advice and care.
Remember not to fight the earworm
In an interview with Sean Rossman for USA TODAY, Jakubowski said that actively trying to get earworms to stop playing may backfire, making them stay around longer. It may be best to let them dissipate on their own.
John Laughton wrote about his distressing experiences with earworms in an article on TheGuardian.com, “Broken Record Syndrome: my life with chronic earworm.” Readers empathized and posted their comments below the piece.
“I feel your pain,” commented Stuart McClung. “Currently sitting in a call center with the chorus to ‘Enter Sandman’ on loop in my head (exit light… exit light… exit light… exit light). I haven’t even listened to Metallica for about a year. Meeeeeeeeeh.”
Another reader tried to lighten the discussion.
“I suggest you get hold of the album ‘Mr Tambourine Man,’ in the hope that early Byrds catches the worm,” Hugecost wrote.
Additional helpful resources:
“The 18 Wonderful Ways Music Affects The Brain,” by Jean Gabriel on NuMusician.com is an amazing resource on music and the brain.