30 December 2008

The Yule Days

This Scottish equivalent of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is from Popular Rhymes of Scotland by Robert Chambers (1870 version, though I would think the rhyme is much older than that). I’ve often thought that both songs could have served as a challenge in how well Christmas/ Yule revellers could carry their drink – especially as most people can’t even get the Twelve Days of Christmas straight when sober…

The king sent his lady on the first Yule Day
A papingo-aye*.
Who learns my carol and carries it away?

So far so easy. But by the end of the song, we’re up to

The king sent his lady on the thirteenth Yule Day
Three stalks o’ merry corn, three maids a-merry dancing,
Three hinds a-merry hunting, an Arabian baboon**,
Three swans a-merry swimming,
Three ducks a-merry laying, a bull that was brown,
Three goldspinks, three starlings, a goose that was gray,
Three plovers, three partridges, a papingo-aye.
Who learns my carol and carries it away?

*a parrot (as you do)

** don’t ask

And a Happy New Year to all our readers…

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…

01 December 2008


You do have to wonder about what some people do, but still I’d like to know:

Why put on a pair of smart new (usually black) shoes or boots and leave the whopping great white price stickers on the soles for the rest of us to see?

Why stand on a cliff edge or go up a church tower if you know you can’t stand heights and don’t have to be there?

Or continue watching a television programme or reading a book that offends?

Why break the news of your parent’s death to a family friend by inscribing it in a birthday card you send them, especially when prefaced “I know you won’t like to hear it this way, but…”

Why stop the minute you step off an escalator? It’s about as sensible as slamming on the brakes on a motorway, especially without checking who’s behind – what are they supposed to do to stop being moved forward? For those behind the one who suddenly stops, it’s frightening enough on a short escalator (in a department store, for example) and bloody terrifying on a long one, like some of the London Underground ones. And infinitely worse going up, of course – much further to fall. And before anyone says it, in my experience it never is people with e g mobility difficulties or small children who are the perpetrators.

Why tell a secret to someone at the top of your voice in public? An extreme version of this is the person who feigns sick leave and then brags about it on the web, or even worse, the person who is being interviewed for television, and naively adds at the end of some indiscreet comment “But I could never tell my mother/ husband/ employer/ whoever” – oh, right, but haven’t you just done that? Even if they’re not watching, somebody will tell them. It’s not advisable to assume nobody can understand you, just because you’re not speaking the language of the country you’re in, or you’re with non-natives. Yelling secrets to somebody above the noise of the tube or train isn’t terribly bright, either: “Do you know X?” ”Ooh, yes, I had a fling with him once – but don’t tell anybody!!!” Don’t tell anybody? Don’t tell anybody???? She’s just told a hundred people, but her mate’s supposed to be sworn to secrecy? Of course a carriage full of passengers doesn’t count, and it won’t mean anything to anyone. Except that it may well do…