Ear Worms

Pat Rice here.

I don’t believe it’s headline-making news that writers are essentially ADD-impaired thinkers.  One thought leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to looking up a reference, which leads to two dozen more books, and then to note-taking and before we know it, voila, there’s a book in there somewhere.

Ah, that I could limit my attention-deprived mind to simply reading books. Alas, it also becomes distracted by many, many other things, like earworms–songs, jingles, and tunes that get stuck inside my head. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to write a straight sentence with “YMCA” kicking and grinding through my poor, worm-eaten brain cells? 

I have written an entire book on the basis of a single earworm that wouldn’t leave me alone. I wrote another that just spilled lines from songs across the page because I was writing about music.  My subconscious is so blighted with earworms that any phrase can generate a line from some old rock or folk song. Who hasn’t had “We Will Rock You” pounding in their head after accidentally colliding with it in radioland or elsewhere?    

You will note the use of a quote from AA Milne’s James James Morrison Morrison in a previous blog. That did not come because I have memorized Milne. I couldn’t memorize my phone number if you threatened me. But the poem has been set to music and sung by the Chad Mitchell Trio and weaves through my mind like a cold in my nose. I’m likely to sneeze it out at any irritation. I mean, who can resist a line like “King John put up a notice: LOST or STOLEN or STRAYED! JAMES JAMES MORRISON’S MOTHER SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN MISLAID.” The whole song just begs to be chanted (loudly) at the drop of a pun. Did I mention how distracting this is when I’m trying to write my own words? (King John said he was sorry…)

I know this plague of bad music sticks in my head for a reason, so—naturally—I went in search of the reason instead of working on the book in progress.  The term earworm apparently appears in a scientific study summarized at WebMD which acknowledges that these snippets get stuck in the minds of women and obsessives more than others. Everything gets blamed on estrogen, doesn’t it?  Has to be that because I don’t have enough memory left to remember an obsession. My memory cells are eaten out by earworms.

And so, of course, marketing latched onto this very lucrative penchant of ours with catchy jingles that we sing in our sleep. For more songs that will make you want to drive a screwdriver through your ear, check out http://newsfeed.time.com/2010/10/22/earworms-the-science-of-songs-that-stick-in-your-brain/ and http://www.noiseaddicts.com/2010/06/catchy-songs-earworms/ . At least you’ll laugh while banging your head on your desk in time to the music.

For me, Simon and Garfunkle’s “My Little Town” is the ultimate earworm. I have no idea why, but I had it in my head for an entire year. Even though my S&G collection is sacred ground, I was tempted to smash it into toxic dust if it would have rid my brain of that miserable little number. And just when it would start slip, sliding away, my husband would play it again. He’s too handy to have around to stomp into toxic dust, but there were times….

Any of you got earworms? Theories on why they move in? Or how to get them out? (Don’t ever go down to the end of the town…)
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Ear Worms — 13 Comments

  1. I hate the jingly ones! The only way I’ve ever been able to get rid of them is to consciously call up a more powerful melody and concentrate on it until I hear it instead.

    The most horrible earworm ever was Bye Bye Miss American Pie, back in 1972. It was played everywhere, you couldn’t get away from it, and I absolutely loathed it, especially when it would get stuck in my head. The only way I could defeat it was to hear “What is a Youth” from the Zeferelli Romeo and Juliet, and then later, my all-purpose earworm killer was the last aria in Madama Butterfly.

  2. Hey. opera has long been practicing power melodies.

    I also recommend Wagner’s Anvil Chorus. It can even nuke the radioactive effect of commercial jingles!

  3. LOL, is that the yo-ho-heave-ho one? The tune, if not the right words, comes readily to mind at the worst possible times. I think I can live with tunes.

  4. No! That’s Verdi’s anvil chorus, where three guys hit the anvil while the male chorus belts out that awful earworm tune.

    No, this is in Scene Three of Das Rheingold, where Wagner called for eighteen anvils tuned to a certain chord, and this percussive pattern is played by the hidden dwarves. But in the magnificent fifties recording, they got tons of anvils, and banged out this terrific percussive pattern that makes fun marching music as well as an earworm killer. (Or maybe it’s only fun for total geeks like me.)

    Siegfried’s funeral, played by this same mega-orchestra, provides about the most powerful music I have ever heard. I used to play it on my Advent speakers when I really needed thunder.

    If you can’t stick opera, though, some rap can really do the trick. Like Fort Minor’s Remember the Name.

  5. Okay, must remember Wagner’s anvil chorus.

    The song I fear and loathe more than any other is…dare I say it…”It’s a small World after all.” Once you have taken a tiny boat through the doll exhibit at DisneyLand/World, where they play this song over and over, you will laugh yourself sick at a Phil Foglio sketch of a wizard torturing another wiz with this song.

    While banging your head against a wall to make the dollies go away.

    I must concentrate on Bye Bye, Miss…that will chase the dollies away!

  6. Okay, totally looking up Wagner. I do Tchaikovsky when I want thunder but this sounds even better.
    And I’d rather stick a screwdriver in my ear than use rap to drive out the sucky worms.

    oh, begone ye evil devil! I was a kid when that first Small World exhibit came to the World’s Fair. It’s part of my psyche now.

  7. There’s nothing like Siegfried’s Funderal, but if you like thunder, try Shostakovich’s 11th. It was written after the now-forgotten Revolution of 1905, and though it starts out quietly, it builds to an amazing crescendo, with complex, interesting musical lines that are too sophisticated to make ear worms, but hoo doggies, it’s power music for writers.

  8. I can go through a whole day replaying the soundtrack from ‘The Sound of Music’ over and over again … sometimes you gotta go with it!!!

    “The hills are alive with the sound of my favourite things …”

  9. My current earworm is Cee Lo’s “F**k you,” which is such a cheery song about someone post breakup that I find myself singing it at the most inopportune moments. Add to that the fact that there’s a lovely YouTube video of a young woman performing the song as her Sign Language final exam–a video I find weirdly charming and cheery–and even my daughters think I’ve gone round the bend.

  10. all right, off to download earworm blasters, but it ain’t gonna be Sound of Music. Love the music but a joyful Julie Andrews will completely torpedo the urban fantasy!

  11. “It’s a Small World” is the worst. Just reading this could lame up your day.

  12. LOL! My daughters keep singing snatches on said F**k You all the time!

    I’m less lucky, the trash can I have instead of a brain faithfully retains a heavy dose of Soviet songs. The seriously rabid ones like Sacred War (Svyaschennaya vojna: http://youtu.be/3GGf7SMhc8I ) or the good old Soviet Anthem (Russia kept the tune, only changed parts of the lyrics: http://youtu.be/ykMVRj6ZrkE ). Try working to that . . . while understanding your earworm sings something like ‘we’ll put a bullet in the skull of the Nazi evil and dig a deep grave for the destroyers of humanity’.