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PLoS One. 2014 Jan 31;9(1):e86170. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0086170. eCollection 2014.

Sticky tunes: how do people react to involuntary musical imagery?

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Hochschule Luzern - Musik, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Luzern, Switzerland ; Department of Music, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom.
Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT, Aalto University, Espoo, Finland.
Psychology Department, Goldsmiths, University of London, London, United Kingdom.


The vast majority of people experience involuntary musical imagery (INMI) or 'earworms'; perceptions of spontaneous, repetitive musical sound in the absence of an external source. The majority of INMI episodes are not bothersome, while some cause disruption ranging from distraction to anxiety and distress. To date, little is known about how the majority of people react to INMI, in particular whether evaluation of the experience impacts on chosen response behaviours or if attempts at controlling INMI are successful or not. The present study classified 1046 reports of how people react to INMI episodes. Two laboratories in Finland and the UK conducted an identical qualitative analysis protocol on reports of INMI reactions and derived visual descriptive models of the outcomes using grounded theory techniques. Combined analysis carried out across the two studies confirmed that many INMI episodes were considered neutral or pleasant, with passive acceptance and enjoyment being among the most popular response behaviours. A significant number of people, however, reported on attempts to cope with unwanted INMI. The most popular and effective behaviours in response to INMI were seeking out the tune in question, and musical or verbal distraction. The outcomes of this study contribute to our understanding of the aetiology of INMI, in particular within the framework of memory theory, and present testable hypotheses for future research on successful INMI coping strategies.

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