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Earworms - "I wish I were an Oscar Mayer weiner" - (4/3/2018)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Julie came into the pharmacy for refills and said to the pharmacist, “Did you ever have a tune stuck in your head for weeks or months? I am hearing the same jingle over and over and cannot stop it.” In fact, she was hearing it now. “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer weiner. That is what I truly want to be…”

The pharmacist told Julie that she had an earworm, which is not an invasion of a creepy crawly, much to Julie's relief. An earworm is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats itself through a person's mind after it is no longer playing. Earworms are not palinacousis, the rare medical condition caused by damage to the temporal lobe of the brain that results in auditory hallucinations. Rather, they are quite common according to researcher James Kellaris, PhD of the University of Cincinnati, with as many as 98% of people experiencing them at one time or another. Women are subjected to longer and more irritating earworms than men are. Those with an interest in music suffer through them the most. Slightly neurotic people also seemed to suffer more.

An earworm can result from hearing any type of music: a TV or radio jingle, a popular tune, or a song from the past. A study done at the University of London revealed that earworms correlated with exposure to the music, having heard the song recently or frequently. They can also be triggered by experiences that release the memory of a song, such as seeing a word that reminds one of a song, hearing a few notes from the song, or feeling an emotion one associates with the song. “Cause if I were an Oscar Mayer weiner, everyone would be in love with me.” 

Tragically, there is no cure for an earworm. No vaccine. No support groups. No shadowy chat rooms.  According to Dr. Kellaris, when people battle their earworms, nearly two-thirds of the time they attempt to recall another tune to dislodge the one that is stuck. A person can try to distract herself from hearing the stuck song by chewing gum, listening to other songs, or watching TV. More than a third of people with songs stuck in their heads attempt to get medical help with their affliction to no avail. Some people try to complete the song in their heads in an effort to get it to end. “Oh, everyone would be in love, everyone would be in love with me.” 

While there are no actual statistics that show how long people have had a certain earworm, there are stories to be told. For example, Jean Harris, famous for the 1980 murder of her ex-lover Herman Tarnower, cardiologist and co-author of the bestseller The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, had an earworm due to the song "Put the Blame on Mame", which she first heard in the 1946 film Gilda. The tune played in her mind regularly for over 33 years and she could hold conversations with others while the band in her head played on. Even the pharmacist had an earworm. A TV insurance ad would set it off. Whenever the ad would come on, the pharmacist would lunge for the remote to hit the “mute” button. But it was too late. The ad blared in his skull for hours. 

Dr. Kellaris performed a study with college students to find out which earworms were most stubborn. The top culprits were Chili's "Baby Back Ribs" jingle, "Who Let the Dogs Out", "We Will Rock You", the Kit-Kat candy-bar jingle ("Gimme a Break ..."), the "Mission Impossible" theme, "YMCA", "Whoomp, There It Is", "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", and "It's a Small World After All." With that, Julie walked out of the pharmacy with her refills in hand, humming the earworm with which she was stuck. “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer weiner…” 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.com. Read more at www.rx-press.com 


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