Relationships between Everyday Music Listening Habits and Involuntary Musical Imagery: Does Music Listening Condition Musical Imagery?

By Filippidi, Ioanna; Timmers, Renee | Psychomusicology, October 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Relationships between Everyday Music Listening Habits and Involuntary Musical Imagery: Does Music Listening Condition Musical Imagery?


Filippidi, Ioanna, Timmers, Renee, Psychomusicology


The experience of involuntary musical imagery (INMI) is a common phenomenon in the everyday life of the majority of people: According to a large-scale survey, 89.2% of participants experience it at least once a week (Liikkanen, 2012). In the past decade, research into INMI has increased considerably, providing insight into the frequency of occurrence of INMI in different populations (Floridou, Williamson, & Stewart, 2014; Müllensiefen et al., 2014), the veridicality of musical characteristics of INMI (Jakubowski, Farrugia, & Stewart, 2016), distinctions between music that is less likely to be involuntarily imagined (Jakubowski, Finkel, Stewart, & Müllensiefen, 2016; Williamson & Müllensiefen, 2012), and circumstances that may trigger musical imagery (Beaman & Williams, 2013; Byron & Fowles, 2015; Hyman et al., 2013, 2015). This paper contributes to this growing area of research by investigating the relationship between listening habits and INMI occurrences, assuming that listening habits "prepare" listeners to experience INMI in particular circumstances. We assume that this "preparation" or "conditioning" is stronger in cases where the music listening and the INMI are experienced as positive and with the frequency of particular music-listening habits. Before we examine these predictions in more detail, we will first take a closer look at what experiences are included when investigating INMI and under what circumstances INMI has previously been found to occur.

INMI: Definitions and Contributing Factors

The phenomenon of involuntary musical imagery (INMI) can broadly be described as subjectively hearing music playing in one's mind without the individual actively retrieving it. Another term that is widely used to describe this experience is "earworms" (a translation of the German word ohrwurm). Associated with this idea of an "earworm" is that it is "stuck" and repeats itself. Indeed, it may be a relatively short fragment of music that one hears in one's head involuntarily and it repeats (Beaman & Williams, 2010). Despite the involuntary and often persistent nature of "earworms", it is distinct from stronger forms of INMI, such as musical obsessions or hallucinations (Williams, 2015), which we do not consider in this paper.

Being repeated and involuntary, the association of experiencing an "earworm" may be negative. Halpern and Bartlett (2011) defined earworms as "persistent episodes of musical retrieval", or "persistent musical memories" commonly known to be an annoying and/or a distracting experience (p. 425). Beaman and Williams (2010) described it as the "inability to dislodge a song and prevent it from repeating itself in one's head" (p. 637). The results of these studies, however, indicated that although it can be an annoying experience, many people actually find their earworms pleasant.

Over the years, scholars have given different names and descriptions of the phenomenon. Sacks (2007) distinguishes "brain worms" or "sticky music" from "music on the brain" or "imagery", describing brain worms as having annoying attributes, and music on the brain as being pleasant and reflective of musical taste. Brown (2006), on the other hand, addressed the phenomenon as the perpetual music track, a general term he used for various forms of musical imagery experiences. Liikkanen (2008) referred to it as involuntary musical imagery "INMI," whereas Levitin (2006) called it the "stuck song syndrome". Wammes and Barušs (2009) described the phenomenon as "spontaneous musical imagery". Beaman and Williams (2010, 2013) and Halpern and Bartlett (2011) used the term earworms. Their use of the term earworms seems, however, equivalent to the use of the term INMI in other papers (Jakubowski et al., 2016; Müllensiefen et al., 2014; Williamson et al., 2012). These differences may just be a matter of inconsistencies in terminology (see also Williams, 2015, for a comprehensive overview). They may however also point toward the existence of more than one phenomenon, which is one of the questions that will be addressed in this study. …

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