A song or tune that repeats over and over inside a person’s head. Also: ear-worm, ear worm.
"I couldn't get the song out of my head. It's like a broken record," Clark said Thursday while shopping at the Galleria at Tyler mall in Riverside. "I keep humming it, and you know, I don't even like Prince's music."
Her experience reflects a phenomenon shared by the vast majority of people, according to an ongoing study at the University of Cincinnati. Nearly everybody has been mentally tortured at one point in their lives by an "earworm" — a tune that keeps repeating itself over and over in their heads.
The research also indicates that people who get the most earworms tend to listen to music frequently and have neurotic habits, such as biting pencils or tapping fingers.
—Hieu Tran Phan, "'Sticky tune' hits a chord with many," The Press-Enterprise, March 4, 2003
If a meme is a cluster of semantic symbols that propagates through a human population in a social manner — similar to the way a gene is a combination of biochemical symbols that propagates through a human population in a genetic manner — a sudden, wildly popular, new addition to "the hit parade' can be seen as a kind of meme When the medium of radio and the recording industry that grew up alongside it created a system for propagating musical themes through a population, a new phenomenon became possible — the "overnight hit." The idea of a "hit" isn't untranslatable, since most cultures have a word for the winner of a competition. But the idea of a tune, a melody, a combination of musical sounds that seems to be on everybody's lips at the same time, that spreads through a society as rapidly as a respiratory infection, and seems to invasively seize and occupy space in peoples minds until they finally succeed inforgetting it, merits a word of its own.
The Germans use the word Ohrwurm (rhymes with "door worm," where the "w" is pronounced like a "v") to denote these cognitively infectious musical agents. Whenever somebody complains to you that he just can't keep the latest pop tune from running through his head, tell him he can dispel it by calling it by name and by thinking about the original German meaning, which captures some of the mnemonicalli parasitical connotations of the word, for Ohrwurm literally means "ear worm" and is also used to refer to a kind of worm that can crawl into the ear.
—Howard Rheingold, "Untranslatable words," The Whole Earth Review, December 22, 1987
The term earworm is the literal English translation of the German word ohrwurm (see the earliest citation, below, for more). An earworm is also sometimes called a sticky tune or a cognitive itch. Subscriber Isa Mara Lando of Brazil tells me that in Portuguese they call it chiclete de ouvido, or ear chewing gum.