That refrain again and again
THE word may not be familiar but the phenomenon surely is. Earworm: a song or a tune that gets stuck in the head and won’t go away. Like an unwanted guest, the earworm turns up without warning and hangs around annoyingly. It repeats the same musical phrase over and over, until you hope to goodness you never hear it again.
Perhaps I am particularly prone to such visitors. But I don’t think I used to get them nearly so often, or so insistently, before I started listening to some of my favourite tracks on an MP3 player. The iPod offers a marvellous, sensuous absorption in music you may know but that you’ve never before heard in such cranial intimacy. It’s a stereophonic orgy for the ears.
Outside, it’s a dull day, I’m on a slow bus dragging its way through the city, but inside my head it’s David Bowie in full vocal and instrumental glory.
Later, at night, as I’m sleeping ( or trying to), there’s a visitation, a digital haunting: ‘‘ Ashes to ashes, funk to funky / We know Major Tom’s a junkie / Strung out on heaven’s high / Hitting an all- time low’’, over and over and over again. The ghost is a weirdly immaculate version of the recording, as though the headphones are still fixed to my ears, so exact an imprint of the original is this repetitive after- effect.
Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks calls it involuntary musical memory in his book Musicophilia ( 2007). It can be obsessive, like my ( mercifully short- lived) Bowie experience, or more benign, referring to any song or tune that may pop, unbidden, into the mind.
Psychoanalysts got interested in the phenomenon in the mid- 20th century. Earworms were far from accidental, in their view. They were messages from the subconscious realm, if only we could read them for their true significance.
In his book The Haunting Melody ( 1953), psychoanalyst Theodor Reik claims that the recurring tune speaks of deep and unacknowledged longing. ‘‘ The haunting tune can be trifling and insignificant,’’ he writes, ‘‘ but the emotions and problems expressed in its emergence are always meaningful.’’ Goodness knows what he would have made of my earworms.
Reik was haunted by the chorale in Mahler’s Resurrection symphony, a fact for which he offers a tortuous analysis in his book. But for most of us, surely, the tune that haunts is likely to be rather more lowbrow. One of the first recorded instances of the earworm phenomenon appears in a short story by Mark Twain, in which the narrator is tormented by an inane ditty: ‘‘ Conductor, when you receive a fare, / Punch in the presence of the passenjare: / A blue trip slip for an eight- cent fare, / A buff trip slip for a sixcent fare, / A pink trip slip for a three- cent fare, / Punch in the presence of the passenjare!’’ These lines fill the narrator’s waking and sleeping hours after he first comes across them; for two days they hum in his head, fall in line with his footsteps and accompany his dreams.
Reik was in no doubt that disguised subconscious impulses were at work even here. But it’s hard to imagine what they might have been. And in Twain’s story the ditty is not only unforgettable but also infectious: the narrator passes on his obsession to a friend, who is also taken over by it, almost to the point of madness.
The Twain story is sometimes cited as proof that earworms have been around for centuries. But 1876, when the story was published, is hardly ancient history. Is it possible that earworms — the obsessive rather than the benign kind — are a modern phenomenon?
Sacks, writing in Musicophilia , points to the ubiquitousness of musical noise and jingles in modern life, a ceaseless musical bombardment with which our auditory systems may not be very well equipped to cope.
Certainly it’s interesting that the first recorded earworm is effectively an advertising jingle. Jingles are meant to lodge in the mind. Advertising is designed to insinuate words and ideas indelibly into the imagination; music and rhyme are a good way of doing it. So it’s hardly surprising that it’s marketers rather than psychoanalysts who take an interest in earworms these days. For instance, James Kellaris, professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati, has made it his business to discover precisely what properties a tune needs to make it likely to stick in the head, a research project of considerable interest to manufacturers and advertisers everywhere.
The ditty in Twain’s story is exacerbated by the noise made by a train: ‘‘ For an hour I sat there and set a syllable of those rhymes to every separate and distinct clack the car wheels made.’’ My earworms are set off by electronic noise, as though my iPod were in cahoots with other bits of electronica. Some time ago I had an electric toothbrush that buzzed thrice to indicate I had been cleaning my teeth for two minutes. Something about the tone of the buzzes and the interval between them every night without fail would involuntarily conjure up a memory of the Gnarls Barkley song Crazy ( buzz buzz buzz . . . ‘‘ I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind’’) that I had been listening to ( how could I help it?) at the time. I had to stop using the toothbrush ( in fact just thinking about the three buzzes, as I am doing now, sets off Crazy in my mind). Similarly, the rising tone emitted by my computer when the email program is activated almost always activates in my mind the plinky- plonk beginning, once again, of Ashes to Ashes. Many are the working days that begin to the accompaniment, in my mind, of the lines ‘‘ I’ve heard a rumour from ground control / Oh no, don’t say it’s true’’.
Now, these things didn’t happen before I got the iPod. And at times such as these, it is as if the whole sonic world is connected to a vast electric jukebox in my MP3- filled mind. It’s as if the beeps, buzzes and jingles emitted by computers, elevators and electric gadgets are the index to my personal music library, a concept that MP3 retailers are so keen to promote. My primitive sensorium is clearly not equipped for this brave new world of musical consumption; I’m going back to vinyl.