03 December 2008

Music on the Brain

This is something I’ve had for years – the tune or song or poem, usually in fragmentary form, that keeps repeating insistently in one’s head - though I only recently found out the word for it: earworm, from the German ohrwurm. Well, yes, OK, that’s how it gets in there in the first place, but that’s not how it actually works, of course. The thing is in your mind, not your ear.

Dr James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati is credited with the Cognitive Itch theory – some tunes have properties which act on the brain as histamines do on the skin, and one instinctively ‘scratches’ (replicates) them. I’m marginally more convinced by Daniel Wegner’s theory of ironic process, which suggests a failure of mental control – in order to get the tune off the brain, you have to repeat it. But even that doesn’t sound like the whole story, if only because not all earworms, or indeed earworm hearers, are alike.

Some people call it ‘last tune’ syndrome because it often is the last one that you heard – but not necessarily. A true, really persistent, damn-this-bloody-tune-go-away earworm can be unbelievably hard to shift, even if you hear something else you prefer. Some people find that completing it (or listening to a complete version of it) does the trick; others manage to substitute a different one, or leave it to go away – but there’s no foolproof solution and probably no such thing as a welcome earworm in the end. I doubt that there’s anything that I could bear to hear in perpetuity, not even the tunes in Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.

In general the more persistent ones are well known to the hearer. You might get an attractive new tune in there, and even encourage it, but unless you hear it a quite a bit more very soon, it will often be ousted fairly quickly by something easier to remember. ‘Lisa Lân’, a Welsh folk song that I’d never heard before, though I managed to keep it for a while, was rapidly replaced by two much more familiar Irish ones with some similarities of tune and theme: ‘My Lagan Love’ and ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ (and yes, they were still there the next morning, along with bits of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, which is always quite persistent once it occurs).

The worst of it is when it’s something that you really can’t stand in the first place. There are some I run a million miles from, metaphorically speaking, and am courting disaster by even writing about. ‘Sugar Sugar’ by the Archies is one, and Middle of the Road’s ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’; just about anything by Abba is a risk, though I don’t mind those, really, but top of the list for me is almost certainly The Carpenters’ ‘Goodbye to Love’ – “No one ever cared if I should live or die…There are no tomorrows for this heart of mine” (why not just go and slit your wrists now?). Bah, humbug! I hate it!

A former colleague, of whom I was otherwise very fond, used to drive me distracted by singing her earworm out loud, probably quite unconsciously. She had just the one, and it was The Inkspots’ 1940s hit ‘I don’t want to set the world on fire’ – which would have been fine, if a bit repetitious, but it was just that one line of it, nothing more. One day I did try joining in with the next line to see if it would jog her a bit further, but it was no use. She was stuck in that particular groove and we just had to hope that the Welfare Officer would never hear her…


Jilly said...

I think 'Sugar, Sugar' must get to everyone. I find I can't get rid of 'Barbie's song', or whatever its proper title is, if I hear it. The same with the one about the day trip to Bangor - not to speak of 'Feed the World' etc.

NAM said...

Oh, yes - 'Feed the World' is a real blight if you get it, as is 'I'd like to teach the World to Sing', while we're at the goody-goody stuff. I've currently got something a bit sterner: the hymn 'Nearer My God to Thee' (British version as played by the Salvation Army, not the American one used in the film 'Titanic') - which I find slightly less alarming (written by a woman dying of TB, apparently) because I can imagine my recent ancestors singing it at the Bethel or at Christ Church in Lowestoft (family history gets in everywhere!).