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How do "earworms" start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery

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  • Victoria J. Williamson
  • ,
  • Sagar R. Jilka, Denmark
  • Joshua Fry
  • ,
  • Sebastian Finkel, Denmark
  • Daniel Muellensiefen, Univ London, University of London, Dept Psychol
  • ,
  • Lauren Stewart

Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) or "earworms" describes the experience whereby a tune comes into the mind and repeats without conscious control. The present article uses an inductive, generative, grounded theory-based qualitative analysis to classify reports of everyday INMI circumstances, and creates graphical models that determine their relative frequency within two population samples; listeners to the BBC radio station 6 Music and an online survey. Within the two models, four abstract categories were defined that described the characteristics of the circumstances surrounding the onset of INMI episodes; Music exposure, Memory triggers, Affective states, and Low attention states respectively. We also note the variety of musical media by which exposure to a tune results in an INMI episode and discuss the impact of musical engagement on INMI experiences. The findings of the present study are considered within a framework of involuntary retrieval theory from both the autobiographical and semantic memory literatures. In addition, the results highlight the potential facilitative effects of varying affective and attentional states on INMI episodes.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPsychology of Music
Pages (from-to)259-284
Number of pages26
Publication statusPublished - May 2012

    Research areas

  • affective states, attention states, everyday music listening, involuntary autobiographical/semantic memory (IAM/ISM), involuntary musical imagery (INMI), AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MEMORIES, AUDITORY IMAGERY, PITCH MEMORY, NEURAL BASIS, BRAIN, NOTATION, MELODIES, CORTEX, SYSTEM, MIND

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