A cure for earworms in meditation

33 Comments

earworms

Earworms are those tunes that get stuck in your head. Sometimes you’ll be meditating and have a favorite song stuck on replay. Sometimes it’s a song you hate. Either way, earworms aren’t very helpful to our meditation practice. In fact they can be so persistent that they drive us nuts!

Over the years I’ve tried a whole bunch of techniques to try to get rid of ear-worms. I’ve tried just listening to the song, accepting its presence and using it as an object of meditation, but songs can be intoxicating and I’ve found that I don’t develop much mindfulness and end up rocking out.

Sometimes I’ve listened to the lyrics closely to see if they’re trying to teach me anything, and from time to time I’ve been surprised to find that in some way I hadn’t expected the words of the song are deeply meaningful for me at that moment. That hasn’t necessarily made the song go away, but it’s given me something to reflect on.

I’ve tried imagining that I have a volume control in my head. I visualize turning this slowly from 10 down to 0. As I do so, I hear the song fade out. But then a few moments later I hear it fading back in again.

Finally I came up with an effective approach to earworms. It’s really simple: listen. Really listen.

Listen very attentively to the sounds around you. Include them in your meditation practice. In fact paying mindful attention to them becomes your meditation practice. Sounds make as good an object of meditation as anything else, so doing this isn’t a “distraction” from meditation but going deeper into meditation.

See also:

Listen in all directions at once. Listen to sounds in front of you and behind you, to the left and right, above and below. Let your auditory attention feel like it’s being stretched in every direction at once.

Allow all sounds to enter your awareness, rather than focusing on one individual sound, or moving from one sound to another.

Listen 100%.

The thing is that you can’t listen to the external world in this way and also listen to yourself singing internally. When you’re completely listening to the sounds around you, you can’t create an earworm. Listen intensely enough, and your mind becomes silent.

Whenever your attention begins to drift from the sounds outside, you’ll start to notice the earworm again. Now this might seem like a bad thing, but it’s actually wonderful, because now you have a built-in mindfulness meter! When the earworm appears, it’s letting you know that your mindfulness has slipped a little. So now the earworm is actually helping you to meditate, and instead of seeing it as annoying you can now be grateful toward it.

A sense of playfulness around this whole thing is important. Don’t see it as a test: you can’t fail. See it as just a game, so that you enjoy both the times you are able to pay attention to sounds, and the times that the earworm comes along and gently reminds you to come back to mindful awareness.

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33 Comments. Leave new

  • Are you familiar with the work of R. Murray Shaefer? He’s a composer who coined the term “the soundscape” to refer to the totality of sounds in our environment. Here’s a brief video about him:
    https://www.nfb.ca/film/listen

    Also see the Soundscape Journal from the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology. This link appears to be down at the moment, but will hopefully be working again soon: https://wfae.proscenia.net/journal/

    Reply
  • I think that is a wonderful method for when we are meditating…but what about when we are just going through every day life? I have earworms 24/7. I wake up and go to sleep with them, and it is crazy making! Mine are snipets that just go over and over, until I hear another song. The only thing that works for a moment, is biting my tongue. Then I tell myself that I can’t possibly hear the words correctly if I am biting my tongue. It will temporarily interrupt it but then it comes right back. If anyone has found a method that works, please do share. I also have an inner ear disease which causes tinnitus. Very difficult to have so much noise!

    Reply
    • Hi, Jody.

      Sorry for the delayed reply, but sometimes the comments get backed up and I don’t have the time to deal with them.

      You can try exactly the same technique of 100% listening in daily life. The same principle applies: you can’t listen 100% to the world around you and also listen to a song in your head.

      But you might want to try other approaches. For a start, let yourself develop a tolerant approach to your earworms, rather than hating them. Part of your brain loves these song snippets and gets pleasure from them in some way — possibly from the repetition and the rhythm, or perhaps from the words, or perhaps from the melody. You may not be aware that part of you is enjoying the earworms, but that’s definitely happening.

      The reason you’re not aware of the enjoyment of these song snippets is that there are other parts of you that are irritated by them! Both parts of you are real; both responses are real; both responses are perfectly reasonable.

      What do we do when we’re in conflict with another person and we want to remain in harmony with them (and I’m assuming that on some level you’d like to be in harmony with yourself)? We talk. We negotiate. We try to work something out.

      So I’d suggest that you start an internal dialogue. You can talk to the part of you that’s creating these sound snippets. You can ask it what benefit it gets from doing this action. You can politely let it know that other parts of you find the earworms a source of irritation. (Remember that this part of you is part of you, and not an enemy!) And you can try and work out a deal. Perhaps that part of you would like to listen to music while you do other things. Perhaps it’ll agree to limit its activities to certain times or circumstances. Perhaps it’ll be amenable to other form of reassurance, like a mantra, or paying attention to the rhythm of your breathing. Perhaps you need to feed this part of you by memorizing song-lyrics (goodbye snippets!), taking singing lessons, or joining a choir. Perhaps this music-loving part of you needs a purpose! You need to be very open and flexible, and let creative responses arise.

      I know this may sound crazy, but give it a go and let me know how you get on.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

      Reply
      • Jody, if your ear worm is 24/7 and is continuous, tiresome and boring you have musical ear syndrome – google it – rather than just an ear worm. Like as not you have impaired hearing too as most sufferers do. I am a retired doctor with partial deafness and have now had this problem for about a year. Like you I want to meditate and have tried some of your suggestions, Bhodipaksa, but find trying to ‘listen to God’ in silence which is what I understand by meditation in my, Christian, tradition is so difficult now.

        Listening to spiritually uplifting music helps but it then becomes the object and once you get involved in it, is it meditation or just listening to music – or is it both and does it matter anyway!!!

        My hobby is painting and I see drawing as a form of meditation if practiced as follows: focus on what you want to draw, totally and utterly for several minutes, up to ten, then draw quickly taking your eyes from the subject only briefly to check your line. Let go of thought and mentally ‘become’ the object you are drawing, e.g. if it is a feather allow yourself to become light and gentle and you drawing will also become light and soft – if a tree trunk you will feel strength enter you and so on – you don’t will yourself to feel this, you let it happen to you. The result on the paper does not matter – that is only the ghost of the experience of drawing, which is the meditation. Frederick Franck has written about his experiences with his in a book called ‘The Zen of Seeing and another called ‘Art as a Way’ This is now the only way I can lose focus on the stupid sounds!
        Bodhipaksa, sir, I would be interested in your thoughts about this.

        Reply
        • I’ve never heard of Musical Ear Syndrome before, Norman. The Wikipedia article described these as “hallucinations,” which made them sound different from earworms. This article in, of all places, the Daily Mail, makes it clear that suffers initially believe that the sounds are really happening in the world around them, which isn’t what Jody described.

          The drawing meditation you describe takes a similar approach to the listening meditation I suggested. If you become completely absorbed in anything, then internal stimuli tend to die down dramatically. I’ve found the advantage of listening, though, is that it’s using the same sensory channel as the internal stimulus, and so it’s more effective than anything else I’ve tried: I can draw and still hear a tune in my head (unless I become very absorbed in the drawing, in which case the music will stop), but as soon as I start to really listen all internal noise (even self-talk) comes to an end.

          Reply
  • Thanks for your reply Bodhpaksa.
    There is growing literature on musical ear syn, but I would not choose the daily mail as a reliable source! The first time I came across it was in a book called ‘Musicophilia’ by Oliver Sachs. In a commentary, “The Power of Music,” in Brain, Sacks, a very highly regarded clinical professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine New York, who has sadly recently died from cancer, wrote that “Musical hallucinations are surprisingly common, affecting at least 2% of those who are losing their hearing.” Sacks also cites one older woman’s experience, whereas she “hears” music from her past. He also states that musical hallucinations cannot be willfully stopped, but they may be changed to other music.The most important thing to be said here is that it is NOT related to any form of insanity. The word ‘Hallucination’ is loaded with unfortunate associations. Technically MES is a hallucination but it is vital to tell sufferers they are not going mad because it is the most common question they ask.

    I take your point about using the same sensory input – It’s just that drawing works swell for me personally because it totally absorbs me in the sense of one-pointed concentration. the music is still there but loses its power over me, whereas when I try silence it an quite dominate me.
    There is quite a good short and readable bit on it on the link below.
    https://deafness.about.com/od/laterhearingloss/a/musicinear.htm

    Reply
    • Yes, I hesitate to take the Daily Mail as a reliable source, but for most people earworms aren’t hallucinations (i.e. they don’t appear to emanate from the outside world) so in this case the paper’s information seems to be accurate.

      I don’t have negative associations with the word hallucinations, incidentally. Mild hallucinations are not uncommon in meditation, and they can even be useful!

      Reply
  • Thanks so much for thise guidance. I was drifting this way myself, but having the listening to the world option confirmed as a way to tackle those seriously annoying earworms is a great comfort to me.
    I will definitely engage in the listening option in my next meditation practice later today . All the best Marcus

    Reply
  • Thank you so much for your thoughtful and knowledgeable replies! I posted quite a while back, and never got a notification for the replies until today. I think I suffer with both earworms as well as musical ear syndrome. I believe the MES correlates with my Ménière’s disease and hearing loss. If I am drying my hair or I have the water running, I hear beautiful music. I often have to stop what I’m doing to see if my iTunes has started playing in my phone. Most of the time there are no words, just the music. My earworms always have the words, and they are always very short snipets that repeat over and over again all through the day and night until I change it. Changing it means I have to hear the song, not just think it in my mind. If I haven’t changed it, I will wake up and it will be the first thing in my head. Another very strange thing that goes along with this for me (I know how bizarre this will sound)…as I am singing the song in my head, I gently put my teeth together in rhythm with the song; keeping beat with my teeth if you will, switching from side to side as if I am playing an instrument. That is why sometimes biting my tongue will interrupt it for a few moments.
    I am going to try to pay attention to the sounds around me. At night before I fall asleep, I try to find a YouTube video for guided meditations. Then I am tuned into the persons voice, and not my own “chatter”. I find that when I am stressed or depressed, the earworms are more troubling (make me feel a little cuh-razy).
    Again, thank you all so much for your input. If nothing else it makes me feel much less alone!

    Reply
  • Angela. Wakeling
    July 24, 2017 11:01 am

    Thank you so much for this information, I have tried it and found it works for me.

    Reply
  • Hi Bodhipaksa,

    Thank you! This method works and I am excited to use my mental music as a tool for greater mindfulness of sounds. In listening intently to the external world, I feel like I am actually moving my attention entirely out of my mind, not just from the repeating song, but all thoughts. It is a liberating, so thank you for this advice.

    It makes me consider how the mind is always teaching us important lessons that are needed at the time. Life seems to be one big teacher and friend when you look back on things.

    Reply
    • Yes, it’s not possible to fully listen to the world and also listen to thoughts, so when we do this our thoughts simply dry up.

      Reply
  • Hi Bodhipaksa, again,
    My query seems to have started quite a buzz ! it seems M E S is not that uncommon – although not many GPs in the UK seem to have come across it – I think patients are a bit reticent to discuss it because they relate it to a mental health problem, which it isn’t. I’m sure Jody’s assumption that it relates to her Menieres and partial hearing loss is correct.

    The pleasant music I used to get is more of a boring persistent rhythmical riff now. I have come to accept it as part of the ‘ten thousand things’ of samsara which no longer bothers me. Acceptance was part of the answer, because it stopped the struggle I was having with it. Meditation music helps, but I find that focussing on a text in the Christian way of Lectio Divina and letting my imagination take this rather than aiming to still my mind completely has been a wonderful exercise – I usually end by writing a Haiku which I keep alongside the text I have taken. (I am a Christian – though not a fundamentalist type, more an open and eclectic liberal!)
    Don’t know how you feel about that, but it is great for me and I learn to intuit in a non-dualistic way rather than get stuck in left brain analysis.

    Reply
  • Its great that I found someone talking about this topic .Actually I tried different techniques in mindfulness practice.First I tried applying my awareness on the music itself and know that its just addictive music or music that enhances a certain state and thats what it is . Then I tried applying it on the state that Iam now in because of the music which is a clinging state.Also I tried to know why Iam hearing the music which I devised was because I heard it too much as its connected with a feeling I aspired to .All of this HELPED me see a clear picture but still didn’t prevent it.I then found out the only way is to just direct the awareness on whats important and stay ardent in that regard till it goes away the unconscious mind just has to get out of that habit.

    Reply
  • Linda Schwartz
    June 6, 2020 6:28 pm

    I have tried this approach and find that it works wonders! I am so grateful for the advice and have unfortunately read (and listened to) many commentaries which stated that there was something “mentally wrong” with a person who encounters this. Time will tell if anything further is taking place with my hearing, etc., but so far this mindfulness technique has been quite helpful. I do meditate and practice yoga on a regular basis and still encounter these snippets. But they are much more reduced. And I have made them my friends and allow them to remind me that I am usually stressed or not centered and need to be “realigned” somehow. Thanks again.

    Reply
  • This was a great little trick you posted. Thanks a lot for sharing it.

    Reply
  • Andrew Pilskalns
    July 18, 2020 7:40 pm

    I’ve got Brahms’ Violin concerto playing in my head right now. I listened to it intensively yesterday, and it’s still there. The best parts, the loveliest bits, are the ones that get stuck in worst of all. I will try your method of ‘mindful of sounds’ but really the solution after all these years, might be to just STOP LISTENING TO MUSIC, which is why the Eight Precepts have this injunction – let’s face it, music isn’t conducive to breath meditation & jhana cultivation. Getting sick of all the noise and distractions from what’s really important (ie, meditation). After this morning, I feel like taking a sword to music and finally being rid of it. Stop listening to alluring music, and in time it will fade from memory, and won’t come up in meditation. I’m getting to that stage.

    Reply
    • That sounds like a rather drastic solution. I’m not sure it would be effective, either. I can still remember very well music I last heard decades ago!

      Reply
  • Hi Bodhipaksa. I also have difficulty with earworms, even though I have recognized rigpa and can stabliize it in my meditations. I have been deeply meditating for about a year and half, after meditating not so deeply off and on for many years.

    In my meditations I can maintain focus on presence with distractions that last less than a second or so, yet I can still have an earworm the entire time that is sometimes prevalent and sometimes in the background.

    My single-pointedness is admittingly not to the level of access concentration yet, but I wonder if the earworms are hurting this progression.

    I have been instructed to listen to mantras or nature sounds for part of my meditation which seems to help. Any thoughts?

    Thanks,

    Paul

    Reply
    • Hi, Paul.

      Have you tried the approach I suggested in this article?

      It took me a long time to realize this, but trying to cultivate one-pointedness is not helpful if we’re aiming to cultivate dhyana, or even access. Dhyana emerges naturally when we open up to all sensations arising from the body, to the connections between those sensations, and to the soft waves of the in-breathing and out-breathing as they sweep through our entire being. And that comes about most easily when we allow the eyes to be soft. It’s as simple as that: let the muscles around the eyes be soft; let the focus within the eyes be soft; notice how this calms the mind and allows you to be aware of the whole body; take an interest in how those soft waves of movement and sensation I mentioned affect the whole body.

      One-pointedness is not a factor in first dhyana. The early Buddhist scriptures include no mention of one-pointedness at that stage. The most that’s mentioned is “unification of mind,” which is a different thing. It was only later that scholar monks, trying to make sense of meditation experiences they hadn’t had (because they were scholars, not meditators) added in one-pointedness as a dhyana factor in first dhyana. It’s one of the most misleading alterations to the Buddhist teachings that I’m aware of.

      Reply
  • I have been plagued by earworms my whole life, and taking up meditation a year a go has made me aware of it. I have tried interrogating the part of myself that generates them: why are you doing this? What do you (I) get out of it? My earworms seem random: the 8-bar theme of a radio program, a TV advertisement jingle, my favorite Darius Rucker song. They are compelling, but at the same time they are ever so slightly unpleasant. They seem like some form of irritation that my unconscious self employs to distract me from something, or provide a balm for some hurt that lies below my consciousness. I never get a reply. I have speculated that this noise is the feedback of the complex mammalian brain, an inevitable side effect of higher cognition. I am wondering if others have asked the same questions, and received any answers. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Mine happen more frequently when I’m anxious or trying to think about things that might cause anxiety. I’ve even had them kick in at moments like those, loud and sped up, as if it was frantic trying to pull my attention away! The way you described it as a subconscious balm is how I’ve been thinking of them lately.
      I haven’t been able to get any answers while the worms are blocking it all out. The few answers I have gotten have been in near silence, sometimes voices, sometimes sounds, sometimes imagery, almost always nonsense. Any conversation always ends earlier than I want.
      Though they can be frustrating and the lack of control can cause anxiety, I believe it’s there to mask deeper anxieties. Lack of control, the unknown, death… grand things that are hard or impossible to process fully, so you aren’t given the chance to try. Only for this kind of persistent background earworm, not so much for temporary annoyingly tunes… though, some of the temporary ones may only be seen that way because it doesn’t count as an “earworm” when it’s pleasant. It’s “catchy” then. The pleasant ones do an even better job as a balm, especially if the listener doesn’t know it could be one!
      The pleasant and unpleasant ones both exploded in frequency once I scratched hard enough at whatever they’re now covering. Now the pleasant ones are unpleasant too since they’re an obstacle now. The timing of its sudden appearance is why I think it serves this purpose, if not for everyone then at least for me.

      Reply
  • I have been plagued my whole life as well. I have panic disorder, and at times of higher anxiety, they seem to be a lot worse. I, too, had them 24/7. Woke up with them, went to sleep with them, and the only time I “escaped” from them is when I was dreaming. Mine made no sense either most of the time. A snippet from a son my dad listened to fifty years ago, the Dick Van Dyke theme song, and of course the last thing I listened to. Sometimes I just had to put on a different song to get rid of the last one, and then no matter how long one stayed with me, once it was gone I couldn’t remember what it was. I currently have other random thoughts and phrases that pop into my head throughout the day, like a random word that will repeat several times. And when I’m really tired, the earworms are back and I also hear random conversations in my head just before falling asleep. When water is running, or my blow dryer is going, washing machine is on etc…I hear music that isn’t there. I know some of these things are common, because I ask a lot of people in my life, and they experience some of it too. I have tinnitus due to an inner ear disorder (Meniere’s Disease), so I always thought maybe that made things worse. Between the high pitched tones and other sounds, the earworms and all of it, sometimes I want to scream or try to escape it somehow. I’ve learned to live with it, and guided meditations definitely help. When I’m calm and things are going better in my life, all of it seems to fade a bit. AND I have been in therapy for the past year, and working through a lot of childhood and adult trauma has helped a lot as well. Kind of like pipes getting clogged, no place for the water to go. Now that the pipes are unclogged, everything flows more freely and the earworms don’t plague me as much.

    Reply
  • I give thanks to Jesus Christ and you Bodhipaksa. After all suffering with songs and thoughts playing and looping all the time, now I can control them. thanks.

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  • This is a very interesting concept, and I can’t wait to try it during a meditation.

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  • When this happens, frankly, I just go with it and I accept that the song is playing and I have little control over it. I don’t fight it. I focus on it like it’s my mantra for the moment. And I play with it, such as repeating a certain verse when I breath in and another when I breath out (or humming a particular part of the song if it doesn’t have any lyrics). Sometimes it can be uncomfortable, sure, because you feel powerless to this soundtrack in your mind, but I think fighting it is worse. But focusing on other sounds seems like a great idea, will definitely try it. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing. Those are wise approaches.

      The practice of being mindful of other sounds (I’d prefer to avoid the expression “focus on”) has the advantage that you’re neither fighting the song in your head, nor having it dominate your experience. It simply ceases to be produced. As I explain in the article, if it does come back, that’s just a reminder that you’ve slipped out of being mindful to sounds. So the song becomes an ally, reminding you to relax your attention.

      Reply

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