Are Earworms Imagined or Remembered?: Classifying Involuntary Musical Imagery
Margaret E. Moore
University of Leeds


Earworms, or short musical tunes “stuck in our heads”, are all too familiar to us. We find ourselves involuntarily “hearing” a snippet of a song, often a tune we may not even like. In one respect, the “tune in our head” involves memory: in order to have a tune stuck in our head at all, we must be familiar with that tune, and this involves having had a past auditory experience of the tune. But in another respect, earworms are not like memories. Earworm experiences present themselves as present internal auditory experiences, rather than as recollections of past external auditory experiences.  I.e., there seems to be no awareness of an act of recollecting in the phenomenology of earworm experience. Such phenomenology is most like that of other instances of musical imagery, which in turn are instances of auditory imagination. However, one might argue that earworms should not be considered cases of imagination any more than they should be considered memories. It is often held that imagination is necessarily subject to volition, and if this is right, involuntary earworms, while perhaps imagistic in some sense, cannot be instances of imagination.

In this paper, I argue that earworms serve as a challenging test case for a theory of sensory imagination. I bring together two different types of considerations to motivate the claim that earworms are better thought of as instances of auditory imagination than of auditory memory: phenomenological description, and work on musical imagery in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. I go on to demonstrate that earworms, and in fact musical imagery more generally, lie at the intersection of imagination and memory due to the temporal aspects of hearing. However, while the same causal and representational processes underwrite both musical imagination and musical memory, it is possible to appeal to phenomenological and conceptual considerations to distinguish the two.