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Science and Industry Museum

Stuck on repeat? Family event investigates earworms

Earworms—we've all had them. Those irritating snatches of music that get stuck in your head for no reason whatsoever. But what causes them?

It's a question that researchers from the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) are currently working on, and their findings to date will be presented at a special event at the Science and Industry Museum on 27 April. 

Pi: Music and Memory is part of the museum's Platform for Investigation series powered by Siemens. At these monthly events families can try fun hands-on activities, meet real life scientists and find out about the latest discoveries. 

Earworms are also known as stuck song syndrome, or Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI), and are defined as a fragment of music that plays in a person's mind without external stimulation (i.e. actually hearing music).

They are being studied by the RNCM’s Dr Michelle Phillips and Dr Ionna Filippidi, who are looking at the differences in involuntary musical imagery resulting after listening to live versus recorded music performances.

In collaboration with external partners, including The Bridgewater Hall and the Science and Industry Museum, they are using bespoke software and smartphone applications to collect data from audience members attending a range of concerts.

Michelle said:

"Big data and live concert audiences are an exciting combination! Music is universal, and learning what makes it replay in our minds is important in furthering our knowledge of the role of music in our lives.
"We hope to not only learn about musical earworms in live performance, but also explore wider questions such as what makes music memorable, and how does our relationship with technology and the digital world influence our listening experiences?"

Gaining a greater understanding of the immersive triggers for memory is key to understanding and advancing the modern music industry, and applications of this research could have wide-ranging impact across the live events industry, digital advertising, sponsorship and media purchasing.

Ioanna added:

"I'm so pleased to be funded for this project and can't wait to get started. I’ve been studying the topic for seven years now and there are still so many unexplored aspects of music and memory to delve into. I’m very grateful to the AHRC North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership and my hopes are that we will add another piece to the puzzle of the involuntary musical imagery experience."

Pi: Music and Memory – Powered by Siemens is at the Science and Industry Museum, Manchester, on Saturday 27 April. Admission is free. For more information about Pi events visit the museum website

Notes to editors

For more information, please contact Kat Harrison-Dibbits, Interim Head of PR, at the Science and Industry Museum on 0161 606 0176 or email kat.dibbits@scienceandindustrymuseum.org.uk