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How long do ear worms last?

Earworms, also known as sticky music or stuck song syndrome, refer to catchy tunes that repeat involuntarily and get stuck in your head. Most people experience earworms from time to time. But for some, earworms become intrusive and bothersome. So how long do these pesky tunes tend to last?

What Causes Earworms?

Researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes earworms, but they have some theories. One is that music gets stuck because your brain’s auditory cortex — the part that processes sound — is trying to complete an unfinished pattern. Songs often contain repetitive melodies or lyrics, which your brain latches onto and replays in an attempt to fully process the pattern.

Another theory is that some songs simply grab our attention more than others. Studies show songs with higher tempo, longer duration, and common phrases tend to get stuck more often. Lyrics may also get stuck when they activate strong emotions or remind you of important memories.

How Long Do Earworm Episodes Last?

Most earworm episodes are short-lived. In one study, researchers found that:

  • Almost 90% of episodes lasted less than 1 minute
  • 8% lasted 1 to 10 minutes
  • 2% persisted more than 1 hour

Overall, the average earworm lasted about 27.7 seconds. However, 5.5% of participants reported episodes lasting an “excruciating” 12 hours or more.

Factors That Prolong Earworms

Certain factors seem to increase an earworm’s staying power:

  • Recent exposure – Hearing a song makes it more likely to get stuck.
  • Enjoyment – We’re more likely to mentally replay songs we like.
  • Lyrics – Songs with lyrics tend to last longer than instrumental tunes.
  • Over-focusing – The more you consciously try to suppress an earworm, the worse it gets.
  • Stress and lack of sleep – Fatigue weakens mental control.

Does Musicianship Affect Earworm Length?

Yes, musicians seem more prone to lengthy earworms. In one study, 96% of musicians reported episodes lasting more than 1 minute, compared to only 11% of non-musicians. This may be because musical training enhances auditory imagery.

How Many Times Does an Earworm Repeat?

Studies show most earworm episodes involve focused repetition of a short “worm” snippet:

  • The average worm length is roughly 15 seconds.
  • Over 50% contain 5 words or less.
  • The most common worms are repetitive lyrics or melodies like “Some – body once told me…” (from Smash Mouth’s “All Star”)

In one study, the same worm played through participants’ heads an average of 106 times per episode.

Are Some Songs More “Sticky” Than Others?

Yes, certain songs get stuck more often:

Song Artist
Bad Romance Lady Gaga
Can’t Get You Out Of My Head Kylie Minogue
Don’t Stop Believin’ Journey
Just Dance Lady Gaga
All Star Smash Mouth

These songs share features like repetitive lyrics, melodies, and phrases that make them prone to looping mentally.

When Do Earworms Occur?

Earworms can strike anytime, but research reveals common patterns:

  • They’re most common in the morning, after waking up.
  • Boring activities like chores, waiting in line, or showering invite earworms.
  • Stress and fatigue up the odds of getting a stuck song.
  • Most people experience more earworms mid-week vs. weekends.

Morning Earworms

Over 40% of earworm episodes occur within an hour of waking up. Scientists think lingering dreams or a wandering mind during morning routines spark repeats of songs heard recently.

The “Incubation Effect”

Studies also note an “incubation effect” — earworms often pop up days after you hear a catchy tune, rather than immediately after. It takes time for your brain to latch onto the perfect looping snippet.

Do Earworms Signal a Problem?

Occasional earworms are normal and usually harmless. But frequent, intrusive episodes — especially those that disrupt concentration or sleep — could signal an underlying issue, like:

  • Anxiety disorders – Repeating worries and ruminating thoughts manifest as recurring tunes.
  • OCD – Earworms matching obsessive habits may be a compulsion.
  • ADHD – Some link repetitive music to impaired cognitive control.

See your doctor if earworms become extremely bothersome or overlap with other symptoms of mental health conditions.

When to Seek Help

Consult a professional if earworms cause:

  • Significant distraction or lack of concentration
  • Inability to enjoy your favorite songs
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Stress, anger, sadness, or anxiety

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help reframe thoughts and behaviors contributing to problematic earworms.

How to Get Rid of Earworms

While you can’t force earworms to end immediately, you can try strategies to cut them short:

Listen to the Full Song

Playing the full track may help satisfy your brain’s urge to complete the pattern.

Distract Yourself

Pull your attention elsewhere by focusing intently on a puzzle, game, or work task.

Chew Gum

Chewing gum occupies the same brain areas as singing and tapping along, short-circuiting the looping tune.

Listen to Different Music

Replacing the earworm song with a new track can dislodge the sticky lyrics.

Stop Trying to Suppress It

Forcing an earworm away often backfires. Accept and let it fade naturally.


Most earworms last under a minute, but can replay 100+ times before fading. Songs with repetitive lyrics and melodies tend to get stuck more often. Earworms frequently strike during low concentration activities but aren’t necessarily problematic. Using distraction and chewing gum can help truncate an episode. Seek medical advice if earworms are highly disruptive or coincide with other symptoms of anxiety, OCD or ADHD.