Musical Cognition, Emotion and Imagery

Don Traut, Associate Professor of Music

UA School of Music Associate Professor Donald Kinser-Traut collaborated with Dan Kruse, a 2012 UA graduate with a Master’s in Ethnomusicology, and Andrew Lotto, Associate Professor in Speech, Language & Hearing Sciences, to conduct a research study on why “ear worms” – the tunes that get stuck in our heads – arrive in our minds, and why they stay there. The researchers found ear worms (also called Involuntary Musical Imagery, or INMI) to be a compelling subject because INMI allows examination into how sensory input, emotion, and brain processes create (and re-create) a perceptual experience.

The study’s goals were to: 1) examine INMI using an innovative, interdisciplinary model that drew upon music cognition, music theory, and the reported human experience of ear worms and 2) to attempt to discern the factors that cause INMI to persist over time (as contrasted with previous studies, many of which had focused on uncovering events or circumstances which precipitate INMI).

Over 400 people completed the online questionnaire, and the team interviewed two dozen subjects at the UA’s Audio Cognitive Neurosciences Laboratory, in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences. The data revealed statistically significant findings, correlating things such as subjects’ frequency or intensity of INMI with their perceptual strengths related to musical melody, harmony, and rhythm.

The researchers complied a database of “song snippets” reported by the interviewees, which uncovered some interesting, if preliminary, findings. Specifically, roughly a third of the reported song snippets display a “sentence structure” most easily described as “short-short-long” (in both simple and compound forms) which may be quite revealing in terms of compositional style and technique of both popular songs and other musical genres.

The team created a documentary, Tracks, which was screened at the International Society for the Quantitative Study of Music and Medicine conference in Philadelphia in July 2015, and gave several public and academic presentations (including Confluencenter’s Show & Tell @ Playground) on their research findings.

Media coverage:

11.01.15: Ear Worms on Arizona Illustrated Arizona Public Media

10.14.15: An Infestation of ‘Ear Worms’ UANews

10.08.15: The UA Funds Research into Why "That Song" is Stuck in Your Head The Arizona Daily Wildcat

10.07.15: Why You Can't Get That Song Out of Your Head Lo Que Pasa

10.06.15: Repetition Key in UA ‘Ear Worm’ Music Study Arizona Daily Star

10.06.15: Show & Tell: The Arizona Ear Worm Project with Dan Kruse and Jamie Manser KXCI

09.29.15: Science of Why That Song Is Stuck in Your Head Tucson Weekly

09.29.15: Songs Stuck on Repeat Zocalo Magazine

09.28.15: Show & Tell: The Arizona Ear Worm Project with Dan Kruse and Jamie Manser Buckmaster Show KVOI

06.12.15: The University of Arizona is Studying Earworms The Times Picayunery 

05.07.15: Got A Song Stuck In Your Head? Arizona Researchers Want To Know Why KJZZ

05.02.15: University of Arizona Studies Songs in Your Head Arizona Daily Star

05.02.15: My Name is Tom, and I’m an Ear Worm Addict Arizona Daily Star

04.15.15: Got Ear Worms? Arizona Daily Star

06.03.14: Earworms, Baseball and Poetry: Faculty Collaboration Grants Fund Interdisciplinary Research UA@Work

Last updated on March 16, 2017.