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Musical Memory: Where Psychology and Songs Meet

By Abbey Becker

Nora Gibson

Photo of Nora Gibson by Abbey Becker.

If you’ve ever had a song start playing in your head when you’re walking down the street, you’re not alone, says Nora Gibson, psychology ’12. “A study performed in Finland determined that 98 percent of people get songs stuck in their head every day.”

A study by Andrea Halpern and James Bartlett came up with reasons why songs may get stuck in one’s head, and Gibson picked up where Halpern and Bartlerr left off. She combined her love for music—she’s a flautist in the American University orchestra—with her major and started a psychological study to try and find an answer. “To date, cognitive research on ‘earworms,’ or songs that get stuck in our heads, has focused mainly on the characteristics of the songs,” says Gibson’s advisor, Professor Zehra Peynircioglu. “Nora, a musician and a psychology major with lots of creativity, is the first to experimentally manipulate the conditions under which any given song might or might not become an earworm.”

Gibson is using two songs from The Lion King as her study’s hopeful earworms, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.” “I had to choose songs without outside influence,” Gibson explains. “They’re not songs you would hear on the radio, but they’re also songs that everybody knows and it wouldn’t be hard to get them stuck in your head.”

Gibson is testing three hypotheses. She based her first hypothesis of incompleteness on the Zeigarnik effect, or the idea that people remember incomplete tasks better than completed ones. In her study, she plays two different songs, one complete and one incomplete, and then has people report which songs they think of in the period after the study.

Her second hypothesis, overexposure, hinges on how often a song is played. She has participants listen to two songs, one she’ll play once and one she’ll play four to five times. She uses the participants’ records of songs they thought about over the next week to determine whether the song she played multiple times was remembered more often. “I think there’s a recency effect—songs that you hear more recently are more likely to get stuck in your head,” she says.

Gibson’s third hypothesis, which Professor Peynircioglu suggested, surmises that talking about getting songs stuck in your head actually causes the phenomena to happen more frequently. Gibson talks generally about music with participants but makes sure to work The Lion King somewhere into the conversation.

Participants, which are recruited via flyers on campus and advertising in Today@AU emails, text message Gibson when a song pops into their heads. They add an asterisk when they feel that the song won’t stop playing anytime soon.

The study won’t be completed until spring of 2012 at the earliest, but at least she has a good feeling that her participants aren’t adversely affected. “There are studies that have determined that people don’t mind having songs in their heads,” she says. “A lot fewer people are annoyed by it.”

When coming up with the idea for her study, Gibson hoped it wasn’t just happening to her because she’s a musician. Some of Gibson’s participants have come from the orchestra, but she’s happy to have anyone volunteer for the study. “If someone’s a musician, great. If not, also great, because I want to see both sides,” she says.

To volunteer for the study, contact Nora Gibson at