That re­frain again and again

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - KITTY HAUSER

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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