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Out There: The Music That Sticks With Us

Why do certain songs get stuck in our head when we run?

I don’t listen to music when I run. Instead, I use my workouts as a time to be in my own head without distraction. I think about what I’m going to write in this column, solve problems that have nagged at me for days, decide what I want for dinner, or hash out theories about Game of Thrones in my head (this occupies about 75 percent of my waking thoughts).

But sometimes—and this may or may not shock you—there’s nothing in my head. I’ve got nothing to think about. It’s just me and the sound of my feet hitting the trail:

Tap-tap-tap-tap

Inevitably, the rhythm becomes percussion, which becomes a song:

I want my baby-back baby-back baby-back

And it’s at this time I wish I ran with an MP3 player, because I’m pretty sure I would come up with a playlist that doesn’t involve the jingle for Chili’s (baby-back riiiiiibs! Bar-be-cue sauuuce!).

It’s not always commercial jingles that play between my ears. I get a lot of 90’s pop music, too. Sometimes, it’s Rodgers and Hammerstein show tunes (yes, I said show tunes. I will come down and fight you right now.) This morning’s run—all 18 miles of it—was accompanied by Wild Cherry:

Play that funky music, white boy

Play that funky music right

Play that funky music, white boy

Lay down that boogie and play that funky music ‘til you die.

Don’t look at me like I’m strange. You know you’ve got a few earworms of your own. A study from the Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition found that more than 90 percent of people have an earworm at least once a week; about a quarter have them daily. What’s interesting is that no one has the same earworms. You might be singing “Safety Dance,” while the guy running next to you wants to know “Who Let The Dogs Out?” (Who? Who-who-who?).

The phenomenon, described charmingly by musical researchers as “musical hallucinations,” is widespread but not fully understood. Some experts suggest earworms are triggered by a sound—hearing a Taylor Swift song when someone says “Starbucks,” for example, or the footfalls of your run percussing an Outkast piece. Emotions may have something to do with it, too: if you associate a certain song with a certain emotional state, your brain is likely to play that song when you feel that emotion. That’s probably why Cee-Lo Green and his catchy (yet not-fit-for-print) lyrics always seem to make an appearance when I’m just about to bonk.

At best, continuous loops can be amusing; at worst, they play Nickelback until you beat your own skull into a coma. Many runners have an earworm or two that makes an appearance in conjunction with the beat of their feet. Gloria Estefan was right: the rhythm is gonna getcha.

It’s not all bad, though. You can use earworms to your advantage. Running coach Jack Daniels once noted that the world’s best marathoners have a leg turnover of about 180 steps per minute—such a rhythm forces runners to take shorter, lighter steps, therefore improving efficiency and reducing injury. 180 beats per minute is The B-52’s “Rock Lobster” or Missy Elliot’s “Get Your Freak On.” If you’re going to going to have an earworm, strive for an uptempo one.

But if you really want to get rid of the song in your head (say, around mile 15 of baby-back baby-back baby-back ribs) some experts say thinking of a different song can help (though choose wisely; that song can also become an earworm of its own), as can singing the entire song to get past the 10-second chorus repeating in your head. One study says chewing gum may disrupts the part of the brain that activates while playing earworms.

If all else fails, you might as well embrace it. Lay down that boogie and play that funky music ‘til you die.

(You’ve got that stuck in your head now, don’t you?)

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About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.