Why do we wake up with a tune in our heads, singing song lyrics, or an ear worm?

This topic is featured in my book Answers in the Dark.

Have you ever woken up in the morning with a tune going round your head?

It might make sense if it’s a favourite track you’re enjoying right now. But what about the random songs you haven’t heard in years like “Strobe Light” from the B52’s, “She Blinded Me with Science” by Thomas Dolby or a song from as far back as during the war?

There could be a number of different reasons why we get what’s known as “sticky music”, “stuck song syndrome” or an “ear worm”, which might explain why we have a song on our lips when we wake up first thing. This article sets out to explain the possible reasons why.

1) Music Exposure

One explanation is that it’s an echo of a song you heard during the previous day or before you went to bed. As I write this, we are currently navigating our way through lockdown in the U.K., whilst commemorating 75 years since Victory in Europe day.

As the nation went to sleep singing “We’ll Meet Again”, it makes sense many may have woken up singing it the next morning.

This is called Music Exposure; our thoughts can be influenced by what we’ve heard recently. So if you’ve been playing a song you love on repeat or went to bed humming a tune, this might be why it’s still with you when you wake up.

2) The Association of Ideas

When someone starts talking about sleep or feeling tired, you might find before long you start yawning. This can be referred to as the Association of Ideas. When we hear or see something, we register it in our minds, search for comparisons or mirror it with something similar from our own experiences.

As Dr Vicky Williamson explains in this article , if you shop somewhere like Faith, your “memory goes down a line of dominoes” until it reaches George Michael’s song of the same name.

It might be then, the dream you’ve had the night before triggers a similar domino effect if the song you have on waking aligns with the dominating thought (from the dream) in your mind.

3) The Impact of Stress

As Williamson explains, if there was a song playing when you were revising for exams at school, then it follows that when you feel stressed you start singing or ‘hear’ that song.

So it could be, if you dream you’re back at school taking your exams for example, that you might wake up singing one of the songs you associate with that time in your life.

If you wake up singing a song you haven’t heard in a while, you could maybe pause to see if there is a part of your history it’s from. If it is, you could reflect on why that song and why now?

4) Lyrics as Information

In the years before we wrote stuff down, we passed on wisdom to our tribe through songs and storytelling. It’s possible that the lyrics of the song you wake up with provide some insight or information that could be useful, so it’s worth writing the lyrics down and seeing how you interpret them.

If you find you have this experience regularly, keeping a dream diary might help. You can see if there are any patterns as to why you wake up with those lyrics and their possible meaning. (You can get insight in how to keep a dream diary in Answers In The Dark).

Keep in mind, there could be lots of reasons this is happening which are still unexplored – the song might reflect your mood, a memory or just be a song.

5) Inspiration

Several people throughout history have woken up with a tune and used this as the inspiration for their own music creations.

Keith Richards reportedly dreamt the riff for “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” just as Paul McCartney apparently dreamt the tune for “Yesterday”. So if you don’t recognise the song you’re humming when you wake up, maybe write it down or record it, just as Keith Richards is said to have kept a guitar and tape player by his bed just in case. Who knows, we may be hearing your song in the charts very soon.

One thing Williamson’s research did highlight is how different we all are. In a database of “ear worms” of over 2500 songs, it was rare that people had the same ”stuck song”.

Just like our dreams and their meanings are unique to each of us, this highlights our individuality and the way we interpret the music we hear. The best person to decide what your dreams mean is you, but if you’re worried about your dreams, or are having nightmares, talk to your health care professional for reassurance.

Copyright Delphi Ellis 2020 – updated 2022


Published by Delphi

Offers "educational side-bars" which may contain uncomfortable conversations. Been on the telly. © All rights reserved.

One thought on “Why do we wake up with a tune in our heads, singing song lyrics, or an ear worm?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: