World of INMI research

2015/02/22 by Lassi A. Liikkanen

The World of INMI research

Involuntary musical imagery (Sacks, 2007), or INMI (Liikkanen, 2008), refers to the phenomenon of hearing some piece of music repeatedly in one's mind. Sometimes this feature is called earworms, persistent or spontaneous musical imagery, haunting melodies, brainworms, musical mind-pops, stuck tunes, intrusive music, or stuck tune syndrome. The term musical image repetition (MIR) has also been suggested by Bennett, 2003, but it is not preferred here because of the overlap with an established acronym for music information retrieval. This page attempts to link together all researchers and resources around the subject.

Scientific events

The world's first scientific gathering of researchers interesting in INMI took place in Summer 2012, 26th of July. During the joint 12th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC) and 8th Triennial Conference of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (ESCOM). ICMPC-ESCOM 2012 conferences is organized in Thessaloniki, Greece in July 23-28. More information about the INMI symposium available on
the symposium website (

Researchers and agendas

Below you will find the people involved, together with their publications related to INMI. The work's that directly INMI have been included in the order of each author's first relevant works' publication (books, theses, journal articles, conference presentations). The year 'since' indicates when the first publication by the author was released.

Theodor Reik (1888-1969), since 1953

Reik's book called The Haunting Melodyis likely the first psychological (and psychoanalytic) study on the subject. See my commentary on his book.

Reik, T. The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music. Farrar, Straus and Young, New York, 1953.

Francis Joseph Leach, since 1982

Composer Leach has been interested in INMI in the service of creating novel compositions.

Leach F.J. (1982) Inner Music. Published in Dreamworks Summer 1982, Volume 2, Number 4. A quarterly interdisciplinary journal on dreams and the waking arts, published during 1980-1987 by Human Sciences Press.

James J. Kellaris, since 2001

Professor of marketing psychology at the College of Business, University of Cincinnati (US). He currently maintains a website called Earworms Research which provides his own results in a layman accessible form.

Kellaris, J. J. (2001). Identifying properties of tunes that get stuck in your head: Toward a theory of cognitive itch. Paper presented at the Society for Consumer Psychology Conference, Scottsdale, AZ, American Psychological Society.
Kellaris, J. J. (2003). Dissecting earworms: Further evidence on the song-stuck-in-your-head phenomenon. Paper presented at the Proceedings of Society for Consumer Psychology, New Orleans, LA, American Psychological Society.

Sean Bennet, since 2003

Sean Bennett was a PhD student at Cambridge (musicology) and coined MIR in his Master's thesis.

Bennett, S. (2003). Song stuck in your thoughts? Profiling musical imagery repetition (MIR). Paper presented at the Society for Music Perception and Cognition Conference 2003, University of Nevada, USA.
Bennett, S. (2003) Musical image repetition. Unpublished Master's thesis, Harvard University

Freya Bailes, since 2004

PhD Freya Bailes works at University of West Sydney (AU) and has written her doctoral dissertation (musicology) on musical imagery and has published the first reviewed journal papers about INMI.

Bailes, F. (2004) A sampling study of the prevalence and nature of 'tune on the brain' phenomena, in 8th International Conference on Music Perception & Cognition.
Bailes, F. A. (2006). The use of experience-sampling methods to monitor musical imagery in everyday life. Musicae Scientiae, 10(2), 173-190.
Bailes, F. (2007) The Prevalence and Nature of Imagined Music in the Everyday Lives of Music Students. Psychology of Music 35(4).

Lia Kvavilashvili, since 2004

Lia Kvavilashvili works at University of Hertfordshire (UK) in the School of Psychology and did her PhD in the topic of involuntary semantic memories.

Kvavilashvili, L. and Mandlerb, G. (2004) Out of one’s mind: A study of involuntary semantic memories. Cognitive Psychology 48(1), 47-94.

Elua, I., Laws, K. & Kvavilashvili, L. (2012). From mind-pops to hallucinations? A study of involuntary semantic memories in schizophrenia. Psychiatry Research, 196, 165-170.

David Kraemer2005

Currently an assistant professor at Dartmouth College (New Hampshire, US), David published a brain imaging study of musical imagery in which he claimed to have tapped INMI in action while doing his PhD.

Kraemer, D. J. M., Macrae, C. N., Green, A. E., & Kelley, W. M. (2005). Musical imagery - sound of silence activates auditory cortex. Nature, 434(7030), 158-158.

Steven Brown, since 2006

Steven Brown is, according to his own webpage, 'a cognitive neuroscientist working in the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby (Vancouver), British Columbia' (Canada). He talks about the phenomenon under the topic of 'perpetual music track' describing in detail his experiences with music that is always present in his consciousness. The paper referenced below is likely to most insightful and detailed presentation of the topic published this far.

Brown, S. (2006). The perpetual music track: The phenomenon of constant musical imagery. Journal of Consciousness Studies 13: 25-44. PDF provided by the author

John W. Mowitt , since 2007

John W. Mowitt, professor of cultural studies at the University of Minnesota, has recently written about INMI building upon the work of Theoder Reik.

Mowitt, J.W. (2007) Tune stuck in head. Parallax, 12(Oct 4), 12-25.

Oliver Sacks, since 2007

Oliver Sacks, one of the most succesful authors in popularizing neurological and psychological science, released a new book about music phenomona and brain in October 2007. Althought the section devoted to involuntary imagery is fairly short and provides no really comprehensive data on the matter, it very nicely integrates observations and ideas from several authors. See Sack's review on Wired regarding the book and his interview in YouTube regarding 'brainworms' (note that the interview is misleading with regards to other types of involuntary memory).

Sacks, O (2007) Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Lassi A. Liikkanen, since 2008

The author of this page, previously researcher at Aalto University and University of Helsinki. I carried out a large study over the Internet in 2007 related to INMI, which produced data for reporting in several publications, including conferences such as the , 10th International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition and 7th Triennial Conference of European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music ESCOM 2009. The extended and thoroughly revised versions of these papers have since been accepted for publication at Psychology of Music and Musicae Scientae, respectively.

Liikkanen L., Toivanen J. & Jakubowski K. (accepted) Catching earworms on Twitter - Using Big Data to Study Involuntary Musical Imagery. Music Perception.

V.Williamson, L. Liikkanen., K. Jakubowski., & L. Stewart (2014) Sticky Tunes: How do people react to involuntary musical imagery? PLOS ONE, 9(1): e86170

Liikkanen L. and Raaska K. (2013) Treatment of anxiety from musical obsessions with a cognitive behaviour therapy tool. BMJ Case Studies. DOI:10.1136/bcr-2013-201064

Liikkanen L. (2012) Involuntary Music Among Normal Population and Clinical Cases. Advances in Clinical Neuroscience and Rehabilitation. 12(4) 12-13.

Liikkanen L. (2012) From characterization to understanding involuntary musical imagery. In the Proc. of ICMPC-ESCOM 2012. July 23-28, Thessaloniki, Greece.
This paper describes how involuntary music phenomena can influence our social life. They show people's awareness of contagion - the possibility to 'pass on' the earworm or promote involuntary music experiences in other people. The other part relates to unintentional overt musical behavior. Lot of people responding to my survey described experiences in which they had received unwanted social attention by unintended musical
Liikkanen, L. A. (2012). Musical activities predispose to involuntary musical imagery. Psychology of Music, 40(2) 236-256. DOI

Liikkanen, L.A. (2012). Inducing involuntary musical imagery: an experimental study. Musicae Scientiae 16(2) 217 217-234 DOI

Liikkanen, LA (2008). Music in Everymind: Commonality of Involuntary Musical Imagery. In the Proceedings of 10th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition. Sapporo, Japan. (PDF)

Liikkanen, LA (2009) How the mind is easily hooked on musical imagery. In the proceedings of the 7th Triennial Conference of European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music ESCOM 2009. Jyväskylä, Finland.

Jan Hemming, since 2008

Dr. Jan Hemming from University of Kassel (Germany) released his first results on a study of phenomenology of INMI in 2008. On the following year he published a peer-reviewed chapter in a German music psychology yearbook describing the same findings in depth.

Hemming, J. (2008) “Tunes in the head” - a phenomenology. A Poster presented at Neurosciences of Music III. June 27, Montreal, Canada.

Hemming, J. (2009). Zur Phänomenologie des 'Ohrwurms' in W. Auhagen, C. Bullerjahn & H. Höge (Eds.) Musikpsychologie - Musikalisches Gedächtnis und musikalisches Lernen. Jahrbuch 20, pp. 184-207. Göttingen: Hogrefe.

Imants Baruss and Mike Wammes, since 2009

Professor Baruss and researcher Wammes both work at the Department of Psychology, King's University College at The University of Western Ontario (Canada). They have recently continued the work of Steven Brown on perpetual musical track and qualitatitively studied the components of this consciouss experience in a larger sample of people.

Wammes, M., Baruss, I. (2009)Characteristics of Spontaneous Musical Imagery. Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 16, Number 1, 2009 , pp. 37-61(25). Publisher: Imprint Academic.

Andréane McNally-Gagnon, since 2009

Andreane is a PhD student working at the University of Montreal.

McNally-Gagnon, A., Hébert S., and Peretz, I. (2009) The obsessive song phenomenon: Induction, memory and emotions. Poster presented at the meeting of Society for Music Perception and Cognition 2009

Philip Beaman and Tim Williams, since 2010

Associated Prof., Dr. Philip Beaman from University of Reading (UK) together with clinical psychologist Tim Williams published in early 2010 a paper about the recurrence of INMI experiences and attempts to control this phenomenon. His 2013 paper investigates INMI in relation to personality characteristics

Beaman, C.P., & Williams, T.I. (2010). Earworms (‘stuck song syndrome’): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts British Journal of Psychology, 101(4), 637–653.

Beaman, C. P., & Williams, T. I. (2013, in press). Individual differences in mental control predict involuntary musical imagery. Musicae Scientiae. doi: 10.1177/1029864913492530 Sage Early web content

Andrea Halpern, since 2011

Professor of Psychology at Bucknell University, Andrea Halpern and James C. Bartlett from University of Texas published a paper consisting of two diary studies about INMI in 2011.

Halpern, A. R., & Bartlett, J. C. (2011). The persistence of musical memories: A descriptive study of earworms. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 28(4), 425-432.

Victoria 'Vicky' J. Williamson, since 2012

Williamson is a visiting Professor of Performance Science at the Hochschule Luzern (Switzerland) . She worked previously at Goldsmiths with reader Lauren Stewart and Dr. Daniel Müllensiefen to supervise several research efforts on INMI. She pioneered a survey study on earworms with the help of BBC and a most prolific scholar on the topic.

V.Williamson & K. Jakubowski (In press) Earworms. In Music in the Social and Behavioral Sciences (Ed. W. F. Thompson) Sage.

V.Williamson, L. Liikkanen., K. Jakubowski., & L. Stewart (2014) Sticky Tunes: How do people react to involuntary musical imagery? PLOS ONE, 9(1): e86170.

V. Williamson & S. R. Jilka (2014) Experiencing earworms: An interview study of Involuntary Musical Imagery. Psychology of Music, 42(5), 653 – 670 doi: 10.1177/0305735613483848 Link to POM advance content

Williamson V. J., Jilka S.R., Fry J., Finkel S., Müllensiefen D., Stewart L. (2012). How do “earworms” start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery. Psychology of Music May 2012 vol. 40 no. 3 259-284.

V. Williamson & D. Mullensiefen (2012) Earworms from three angles. In E. Cambouropoulos, C, Tsougras, K. Mavromatis, K. Pastiadis (Eds) Proceedings of ICMPC-ESCOM 12 (Thessaloniki: Greece), 1124-1133

Daniel Müllensiefen, since 2012

Dr. Müllensiefen is a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. As a part of Music, Mind and Brain group, he was been contributing to INMI research for few years before getting his first journal paper on the topic to press in 2013

D. Müllensiefen, J. Fry, R. Jones, S. R. Jilka, L. Stewart & V. Williamson (2014) Individual differences in spontaneous involuntary musical imagery. Music Perception, 31(4), 323-335

Georgina Floridou, since 2012

Ms. Floridou is a PhD student at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is preparing a dissertation on music psychology under Daniel Müllensiefen.

GA Floridou, VJ Williamson, D Müllensiefen (2012) Contracting Earworms: The Roles of Personality and Musicality. In Proc. ICMPC-ESCOM 2012.

Ira Hyman, since 2013

Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University , Hyman and a group of six graduates studies what they labeled intrusive music. They brought in a new aspect to study Zeigarnik effect in relation to INMI.

Ira E. Hyman Jr., Naomi K. Burland, Hollyann M. Duskin, Megan C. Cook, Christina M. Roy, Jessie C. McGrath, Rebecca F. Roundhill (2012, advance online publication) Going Gaga: Investigating, Creating, and Manipulating the Song Stuck in My Head. Applied Cognitive Psychology
Wiley Online
doi: 10.1002/acp.2897

Roger E. Beaty, since 2013

Mr. Beaty is PhD Student in Psychology (University of North Carolina at Greensboro, US) and published a paper with a number of people reporting follow-ups to existing studies, exploring e.g. phenomenology of INMI and personality factors within.

Beaty, R. E., Burgin, C. J., Nusbaum, E. C., Kwapil, T. R., Hodges, D. A., & Silvia, P. J. (2013). Music to the inner ears: Exploring individual differences in musical imagery. Consciousness and Cognition, 22(4), 1163-1173. doi link

Stephanie Audrey McCullough, since 2014

Stephanie was a student of Professor Elizabeth Margulis from the University of Arkansas (see below). This study printed in 'Inquiry: The University of Arkansas Undergraduate Research Journal' addresses the relevance of motor involvement. I expect a peer-reviewed version of the paper to be released in 2015.

McCullough, Stephanie Audrey and Margulis, Elizabeth Hellmuth (2014) The Effect of Motor Involvement and Melody Truncation on Involuntary Musical Imagery. Inquiry, vol. 17

In my opinion, two most closely related lines of research lines are those of musical imagery and involuntary memories. The prominent researchers in each field include Andrea Halpern (imagery) and Dorthe Berntsen (involuntary memory). There is a specific line of research concerning involuntary semantic memories that touches the essence of INMI initiated by a publication by Kvavilashvili and Mandler (article about involuntary semantic memories published in Cognitive Psychology, 2004).

Kvavilashvili has sinced continued the work on involuntary semantic memories, or mind pops, and collaborated with Hertfordshire researchers Ia Elua and Keith R. Laws to release a paper in Psychiatry Research, 192 (2-3), 165-1709. This paper compares normal people with age-matched schizophrenics and depression patients. It finds that schizophrenics have more frequent mind pops than the normal or the depressed.

After the end of 1990's, cognitive neuroscience has achieved the status of state-of-the-art psychology . Important contributions, also relevant to INMI have been made especially by a group of scientists located in Montreal (QU, Canada), led by Robert Zatorre. Outside the works of Zatorre, Peretz et alia, I would like to highlight a study by Goycoolea et al. (2007, Musical brains: a study of spontaneous and evoked musical sensations without external auditory stimuli, Acta Oto-Laryngologica 127: 711-721). These researchers located in Santiago (Chile) talk about INMI and present empirical results about deliberate musical imagery acquired with SPECT. Their work falls under the category of medicine and psychiatry, with the focus on false perceptions, or auditory hallucinations (also called hallucinosis, pseudo-hallucinations, or auditory Charles Bonnet syndrome). In clinical psychology, the term musical obsessions has also been used.

Professor Jonathan Berger from Stanford published in early 2015 a thoughtful article (not a research paper thou) in Nautilus journal. The paper called The Necessity of Musical Hallucinationsdiscusses some difficult questions of what musical repetition and memories are deep down. An excellent read that gives a perspective to music cognition around earworms.

In December 2013, Master's student Christine Wu from Ohio State University published her thesis, Developing an Earworm Suppression Strategy Using the Think/No Think Paradigm which continues recent published efforts on finding 'cure' for INMI. She investigated think/no think paradigm developed by Anderson and Green (2001), but could not find conclusive evidence for its usefulness. Interestingly, she collected some EEG data which are yet to reported.

In 2011, PhD student Angelica B. Ortiz de Gortari and her co-authors published a paper about Game transfer phenomena in video game playing in the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning. This work not only mentions earworms induced by games, but also discusses interesting involuntary transfer phenomenon from (excessive) game exposure to conscious experience outside the game environment.

There a whole book now examining the nature of repetition in music and cognition. Elizabeth Margulis' book On Repeat came out in 2014 and has been an interesting addition to the literature surrounding INMI.

Earworms in popular media

INMI is nowadays well represented in the popular media. Possibly the first appearance was made in Mark Twain's short story 'A literary nightmare', also known as 'Punch, Brothers, Punch.' It was published in 1876 and introduced a poem or a rhythmic jingle which created an awfully persistent and attention disabling condition for the Twain brothers. The jingle itself, essential part of the story, was work of a number of people, excluding Twain (see Wikipedia).

Miscellanous resources

News and blog entries in the web:

More permanent site:

Discussion forums

There are plenty of threads concerning stuck tunes going on in different forums, the following have a bit more scientific content than the others.

Musical examples of INMI 'abuse'

Annoying tune
Kummeli: Tää biisi jää soimaan sun päähän (FI)
Allekirjoittaunut: Tosi tarttuva täytebiisi (FI

In other langauges

In German: Ohrwurm
In Finnish: Korvamato
YLE news: Korvamatoja 2010 euroviisuissa

Related content:
Commentary on Theodor Reik's book The Haunting Melody, 2015/02/07

[06] Nikander J. B., Liikkanen L. & Laakso M. (2014) Ownership effects in design concept evaluation. Design Studies 35(4) 473-499. DOI: 10.1016/j.destud.2014.02.006, 2015/01/31

Lassi A. Liikkanen (2004) Neural substrates of musical experience. Univ. of Helsinki, Dpt. of Psychology, 2014/10/20

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Keywords: [psychology] , [music] Document's status: Ok (Document dates explained)

This document created: 2007/05/01
Modified: 2015/02/22
Published: 2015/02/22

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