earworms

“Often I am still listening when the song is over.”  — Jean François de Saint-Lambert

It’s one thing to have a piece of music in your head after you’ve just listened to it, at a concert or on the radio or (yes, some of us still do it this way) on the turntable at home.  But sometimes they really get stuck there, or even show up at a later date and refuse to go away.

Those tunes we can’t get rid of are commonly called earworms, one of a number of interesting neurological phenomena involving music.

There are many theories put forth about why we get earworms and what makes a song likely to become one.  Repeated exposure is usually a necessary condition; it’s quite unusual for tunes that are new to you to get implanted quickly.  And there’s typically something “catchy” about it.  (How’s that for a technical explanation?)

One podcast made a playlist of “the ones we can’t get out of our heads.”  Depending on your age, you’re bound to have some of those songs on your personal earworm rotation.  For aging Boomers like me, “Rocket Man” makes sense (although there are some other Elton John songs that could qualify) and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” was sticky even before it brought The Sopranos to an end.

I got a kick out of another song on the list, “Surfin’ Bird.”  When I was nine, I looked across the street to see The Trashmen getting out of their vehicle to visit our neighbor Jimmy Thomas, who was booking them at the time.  I was thrilled.  The song made it to #4 on the Billboard chart, and, with its place on the earworm playlist, the bird is still going strong.

Awhile back, a classmate complained on Facebook that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was stuck in his head a week after seeing the Queen biopic of the same name, even though he listens to lots of music each day.  He was not alone (although some of us can’t get through that song without Wayne and Garth and the boys flashing in).

The other day, for no apparent reason, the title song from Oklahoma! came to me.  I hadn’t heard it in a long time, so there wasn’t a trigger, but the exuberance of it made me wonder about those war-weary people who saw the show when it opened on Broadway in 1943.  Hearing it, they could hope for a better day.

Show tunes seem to be pretty sticky for me.  After seeing West Side Story at the Guthrie last year, that jukebox full of great tunes was playing on for at least a week.

Not long thereafter, one of my children sent me a video of Lin-Manuel Miranda (the creator of Hamilton) leading the patrons at a pub in Wales in a raucous rendition of “Stars” from Les Misérables.  That anthem became a mental loop for me for quite a while (although it sounded more like this as it played), highlighting the different interpretations of good and evil that push the musical forward:

And so it must be
For so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price

After listening to it again just now, I’m afraid it will be with me for some time.

While earworms are usually predictable, sometimes there are oddballs that sneak in.  (I mean, Lizzo, what are you doing in this old man’s head?)  For someone who was at an impressionable age (again, nine) when Beatlemania took off, scores of their songs can come out of nowhere and take residence.

A few weeks ago, it was “The Night Before,” not a tune that I paid much attention to.  Then, “I’ve Just Seen A Face” showed up, in close proximity to me being with my granddaughter for the first time.  Probably not a coincidence.

That was an earworm that I didn’t mind having.  But others can be more frustrating.  To get rid of them, there are tricks like doing puzzles or listening to different kinds of music or, some have said, chewing gum (?).  But the favorite recommendation that I’ve heard calls on the Beatles again; “Norwegian Wood” is said to wipe other songs away.

But then you have to get that out of your head.



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