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The Bipolar Brain – A Radio Station You Can’t Turn Off

Ah the human brain. It’s a wondrous thing. It calculates, it categorizes, it makes connections and it remembers the square root of 144. I’m constantly awed by its power.

But one of the annoying things that can happen to a brain is that somehow, a song gets stuck in it. Somehow, even through its great power and ability, the catchy hook of the latest pop tart gets stuck inside some errant neurons and plays over and over.

And this causes a lot more trouble in my bipolar brain than it does for others.

I Have Justin Bieber Stuck in My Head; I’m Thinking of Cutting it Off

I find myself with songs stuck in my head all the time. Like, every day, all the time. And they aren’t songs that I like or even songs I have heard that day they are just random songs that somehow fight their way into my consciousness long enough to create a groove there. And once they’re there? Good luck getting them out.


According to Wikipedia, this phenomenon is known as an “earworm,” “musical imagery repetition” or “involuntary music imagery.” In Germany they have a special word for it – Ohrwurn – “a type of song that typically has a high, upbeat melody and repetitive lyrics that verge between catchy and annoying.”

Earworms are completely natural, of course and apparently 98% of people experience them. Women seem to experience earworms for longer and are more irritated by them. Songs with lyrics account for about three-quarters of earworms.

My Bipolar Brain and Earworms

Unlike the experience that most people have, I have earworms much of the time. Sometimes it’s one song that repeats for days and sometimes it’s many songs in a day, but predominantly they are there.

I have found no research suggesting people with bipolar disorder have more incidence of earworms than others but there is research that says people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) do and as I’ve remarked previously, OCD and bipolar disorder may be linked. And earworms on hypomania? That is your brain on extra-crispy-crazy.

Admittedly, it is a very obsessive thing my brain does. It feels like an obsession with the invisible. I can never see it so it never goes away. And I find this highly troubling.

Like, highly troubling. Like I could see someone wanting to icepick his or herself just to make the blooming song in his or her head shut the heck up. It’s that much of an anxious obsession. It’s crazy-driving obsession. Sometimes I feel like I’m begging my brain to think of anything else but it laughs and carries on with the 30-second loop.

Holy macaroni is it ever frustrating.

So, my question to you is this: How often do you experience earworm? Is it troubling to you?

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

Author: Natasha Tracy

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139 thoughts on “The Bipolar Brain – A Radio Station You Can’t Turn Off”

  1. Oh, yes… Actually last tuesday I heard a hideous song (or I think I do, but don´t remember where) , and I keep repeating in my brain the chorus (the only part I know).

    But, is like when I cannot remember something (name, data, etc.) Just try not to pay attention and ignore it until it goes away.

    And while I write this I keep singing the stupid chorus in my head, hahaha.

  2. I know what you’re talking about with earworms but I don’t seem to get them any more than the general population. What I did get once when not well was a repetitive phrase over and over, that was derived from a song but wasn’t actually melodious in my head. I couldn’t make it stop.

  3. I think that it’s not so much the song as it is my brain going into that endless loop … With me , it happens with just about any type of thought …

  4. Between hearing voices and earworms when my bipolar is “acting up” worse than usual, I totally want to remove my head at times. Only sometimes is it amusing, but that is a rare occurrence. Last week, I woke up to “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!” followed by Kelly Clarkson on loop singing, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” That day, I could only shake my head and weakly smile.

    Most days though, it is so crazy-irritating-driving-me-mad that I can hardly stand to be awake. Trying to find something to drive it out isn’t always successful because I can’t always listen to headphones to knock them off track. Besides, that only sets me up for different ones.

    But like you, it doesn’t have to be a song that I’ve heard recently, or in the case of the Kraken, a phrase I even know from a movie. I’ve never seen any movie with that phrase in it, just a few comedy skits about it…but apparently, it stuck.

  5. Earworms, nice to know it has a name, can’t stand the things!. I get them pretty much everyday and sometimes at night, and those are the worst. One evening it became so severe that I couldn’t get it turn off when I was having a sleep study done for sleep apnea. I just couldn’t turn it off no matter what; I ended up only sleeping for an hour. I need a new one done providing my insurance approves it. That should be an interesting explanation…my patient has earworms and couldn’t sleep!

  6. I think this is fairly constant for me. I always have a tune in my head, and no, it doesn’t have to be something I heard, although that’s a real problem too. I seem to have specific triggers and corresponding songs. When I reach a certain stress level, Circus Theme music starts, and after that “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” For twenty years I’ve had “Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends” whenever I witness any kind of drama. I sing the WHOLE SONG. And “If I Only Had a Brain” all day when I think I’m being stupid. Ugh, yes, it does make me want to take my own head off.

    I don’t know what to do about these theme songs, it’s not like I even hear them anywhere BUT my own head! But for the everyday stuff, I am VERY careful about what I listen to, especially in the morning. If I can’t stop it, I at least want positive messages running through my head all day. I put together a drive-to-work playlist that is cheery and optimistic.

    PS: Thank you all for being here.

  7. I think I have the most earworms with songs that I both listen to and sing. I have always loved to sing. I’m in my church choir and often have earworms with that music, which is good because it’s uplifting.

  8. I get these earworms constantly . They can be anything from a couple of lines from a child’s nursery rhyme eg Jack and Jill went up the hill… to ‘Sign of judgement time aint long’ a Marianne Faithful song. Often it is negative. My head chooses not me. I read something in a self help book. It was about positive stuff. It was ealking about putting positivee lines in your head. I hadn’t realised how important that was.

    So I attemped to try and over rule what my head wanted to say. It took me weeks and weeks. My head fought with me. We battled. I have partially won. This is what I say now when it wants to go on one of those loops.

    “I am whole, perfect, powerful, loving, happy, harmonious, and strong”

    It helps when my head has put me in a stuck place also.

  9. I have bpd II and a condition called Musical Ear Syndrome (MES), or musical tinnitus. I came down with regular tinnitus (ringing in the ears) in my early 20s. The MES started about two years ago.

    Unlike earworms, the sounds made by MES are musical, but the instruments are always either gazoos, beeps, horns, pipe organs, for example. I never hear a full song, just a portion. Some of the music I hear is abstract, and pretty disturbing. Other pieces of music are very traditional, such as Frere Jacques, Three Blind Mice, The Star Spangled Banner, Mon Cheri Amour (Stevie Wonder), Jingle Bells, a piece from a Jason Mraz song… The tempo can speed up and slow down on its own and the number of song-bits played at one time can be as many as five.

    In addition to the tunes, I hear chanting, but there are no words, just monk-like chanting as they hold certain notes and roam the scale. I also hear groaning. Yee hah.

    My psychiatrist had me try Seroquel to see if there was a psychotic element to the origin of the sounds. The Seroquel had no effect on the sounds or my ability to deal with them. I am currently in the process of applying for disability. I am also hearing impaired. It’s all in the head…

    There are 5 precursors to MES, none of which are related to bipolar disorder, but you may want to take note of the following characteristics that may lead to MES:

    1. having a hearing loss
    2. having pre-existing tinnitus
    3. living alone
    4. taking ototoxic medication (chemotherapy)
    5. being elderly

    Thank you, everyone, for your posts! People who do not have this have NO idea. Sometimes the sounds in my head are so loud and loopy that I get nauseous.

  10. This is so comforting to know I’m not alone. I was just trying to explain this to my daughter. I have had the same song on a constant loop in my head for about 15 years. I think it may have started out as a coping mechanism, like signing a lullaby to comfort a child. I don’t mind it, it’s one of my favorite songs, but I don’t like when someone points out that I’m unknowingly humming out loud…very embarrassing. I have bipolar disorder and I do have some vestiges of OCD (counting, primarily).

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