You’ve probably struggled with it at some point or another: A song that you simply can’t get out of your head. It may be just the chorus, or just a few lines from the first verse, but anytime your brain goes quiet, there it is.
It might start out as a simple “You say, I only hear what I want to…” And before you know it, you’ve got Lisa Loeb’s entire ’90s hit “Stay”—at least the parts of it you can remember, anyway—on repeat in your brain, against your will, and no matter what you do, her lilting, plaintive lyrics just won’t leave. “You say, stay.”
It’s enough to drive you crazy, but there’s more to the story than just a catchy tune. According to psychologist James Kellaris, earworm songs are kind of like a “cognitive itch,” The only way to scratch that itch is to repeat the song over and over again in our minds.
Some songs are more prone to being earworms than others—songs that have repetitive patterns or unusual time signatures are especially wormy. But a lot of times, earworms are personal. And, say researchers, they’re often intrinsically linked to whatever music we listened to when we were younger. So if you listened to a lot of, say, N*Sync when you were in your tweens, chances are you’ll get those types of songs stuck in your brain as you age.
How can you get rid of an earworm once you’ve got one stuck in your head? There’s no guaranteed trick, but Kellaris suggests putting on the radio or playing another song. Or, because often your brain gets trapped in a loop with just a small part of a song—it can be helpful to actually just give in and listen to the whole thing all the way through. Another tip, straight from comedian Amy Sedaris: Simply sing the commercial jingle “By Mennen,” and you’ll wipe out your earworm.
Below, our editors weigh in on 10 songs they always find stuck in their heads. Sorry in advance if they get lodged in your brain, too.
1. Stevie Wonder—”Master Blaster”
2 .Justin Timberlake—”My Love”
3. Lady Gaga—”Applause”
4. Carly Rae Jepsen—”Call Me Maybe”
5. Dead or Alive—”You Spin Me Right Round”
6. Tupac—”California Love”
7. OutKast—”Hey Ya!”
8. Jeremih—”Birthday Sex”
9. Katy Perry—”California Girls”
11. Jay Z—”Tom Ford”
Now it’s your turn: Tell us what song you’re always getting stuck in your head!