Eyaaa! Earworms!!!

After your body is under stress for some time you need to do something to relax, like exercising, getting a massage or having some form of sexual release.  When your brain has spent too much time dealing with complex problems such as how to tell your spouse they no longer look good in that beloved 80s dress, it needs a break too. One way is dreaming, which can be done asleep or awake.  The conscious and unconscious mind drifts away on a sea of alpha waves, making up stories and painting pictures.  Another way the mind relieves tension is via a musical/cognitive phenomenon called EARWORMS.

The word for the phenomenon comes to us from the German word OHRWURM, for a simple song (or motif) that gets stuck in your head.  They are musical memes.  Everyone with a functioning brain who has (or ever had) hearing gets earworms.  Musicians, women and persons prone to worrying get them more often.  It isn’t a new phenomenon.  Mozart’s kids would play simple scales and fragments of songs downstairs while he was up above trying to compose.  He would go crazy when they stopped and have to come down and finish what they started to get his brain unstuck.

Mark Twain’s 1876 short story “A Literary Nightmare” is about a jingle (explaining passenger fares for a tram) that gets passed around like a virus, disabling the concentration of those exposed to it.

There’s general agreement that it happens.  The topics under research are only attempts to explain why.  Noted neurologist-author Oliver Sacks writes in his book “Musicophilia” that earworms are an inescapable consequence of us being surrounded by music in our daily lives.  James Kellaris, professor of Marketing at the University of Cincinnati, believes it’s like a “cognitive itch” – the tune puts a stinger in your brain and your brain replays it over and over in obsessive examination.  According to his research, earworms have one or more of the following characteristics:

1.)  Simplicity

2.)  Repetition

3.)  Incongruity – a variation in the repeats

Kellaris cites as an example the Leonard Bernstein song “America” from West Side Story.

Earworms would not be considered pests if they were all as classy as that song.  Unfortunately, most of them are created by composers to advertise products, or by the writers of pop songs.  The most important element of a pop hit or a successful jingle is the “hook”, that thing that sticks in your head whether you want it to or not.

“Gimme a break.  Gimme a break.

Break me off a piece of that _ _ _  _ _ _  _ _ _.”

Sometimes the wormiest jingles are extremely irritating, such as:

“Head-On, apply directly to the forehead!” (repeated ad nauseum)

Some artists like ABBA, for example, spend their entire careers in attempts to create earworms.  Their songs “Waterloo”, “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance” are all examples.

Many “one hit wonders” are successful because they are earworms.  One that’s been in my head for decades is “Nothing But a Heartache”, as recorded by The Flirtations in 1968.  It’s sort of a rip-off of “Stop In the Name of Love” which is in itself pretty earwormy.  Here are some of the godawful, insipid lyrics:

Nothing but a heartache every day
(Nothing but a heartache)
Nothing but a tear drop all of the way
(Nothing but a tear drop)
It is one situation that I just can’t win, yeah
He’s got me all won,
Can I get him?

I got a lot of those heartaches
I got a lot of those tear drops
Heartaches, tear drops, all of the way
Nothing but a heartache every day!

I admit to having mis-heard the lyric as “He’s got me.  Oh, why can’t I get him?”  Doesn’t matter.  Still got stuck in my head.

Some other famous earworm songs are Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus, Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and one by Gary Glitter generically entitled “Rock and Roll Part 2” that was so wormy it didn’t even need lyrics, unless you consider heavily overdubbed, echoing, fake-tribal shouts of HEY-EYYY to be lyrics:

Everyone reading this has some of these wigglers stuck in there.  Don’t lie.  I KNOW you do.  There are only two ways to get an earworm out.  One is to fill that space in your head with something even more compelling.  The other is to share it with your fellow readers here.



Filed under humor, Music, Thinking about thinking

24 responses to “Eyaaa! Earworms!!!

  1. I’m just sitting here minding my own business having a little read of your post whilst sipping my cocoa…and what have you gone and done to me? You’ve somehow managed to plant one of those flippin wigglin worm things in my ear…Oh NO! There’s one in the other ear too…Now I have Bonnie Tyler moaning about heartaches on one side while Abba and Freddie Mercury are battling it out so valiantly for the other one that my rib cage is rockin’! Thanks for that IM…I wouldn’t mind but it’s bedtime! …nothin but a heartache, catch him with a hot plate, feeling like a clow-ow-owown (or words to that effect) dum-ti-dum tra la la

  2. This is the one stuck in my head since 1999, but it’s awesome!

  3. I’m always getting earworms! Sometimes they pop in out of the blue. How odd, but today I had a song going on for the longest time before I tuned in. It was David Bowie and Bing Crosby “Little Drummer Boy.” Where the heck did it come from? Yes, I love that song, but I haven’t heard it since last Christmas season….weird. Maybe a few notes from another song kicked it off, or a few words I read or something….amazing how that works. It’s still playing, on and on….

    I kind of like it because…well I sort of have an audiographic memory, and a good memory in general, for odd things. Songs–forget it. Once they get implanted they’re there forever, which is great, since I love music. For example, I’m no singer, really, but I sing a lot, and if it’s a cappella, I kind of cheat and sing along with the song playing in my head lol Plus I remember all the words easily. I play guitar, too (well not a lot lately) but it helps when I’m trying to figure out a song because I can hear it in my head and can strum or pluck along until I match chords or notes and figure it all out.

    Love those earworms!

    • I love ’em too (pa-rrum pum pum pummm).

      Many of the hooks in classic songs are based on guitar motifs, like in I Fought the Law, Wild Thing, Whole Lotta Love, Summertime Blues, Not Fade Away, Paperback Writer and many, many more.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment!

  4. Little Bro

    This one shows up a lot:

    I often find that the best way to rid myself of an earworm is to listen to the entire song that’s jammed in there (since it tends to be just a fragment playing over and over).

    This one’s appropriately titled:

    With my music library at home, I usually have little trouble finding a way to cast the worms out.

    This one’s just damn evil, but a fun flashback – you have been warned:

  5. There was an old an named Michael Finnegan
    He had whiskers on his chin-egan
    They grew out and then grew in-again
    Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin-again

    There was an old an named Michael Finnegan
    He had whiskers on his chin-egan
    They grew out and then grew in-again
    Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin-again

    There was an old an named Michael Finnegan
    He had whiskers on his chin-egan
    They grew out and then grew in-again
    Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin-again

    Worst. Earworm. Ever.
    Took me WEEKs to find something to wipe it out.

    • Make it stop, please!!!

    • That’s a big worm for sure. I vaguely remembered other verses (from camp) so I looked it up:

      There once was a man named Michael Finnegan,
      He got drunk from too much ginnigin
      So he wasted all this tinnigin,
      Poor old Michael Finnegan (begin ag’in)

      There once was a man named Michael Finnegan,
      He went fishing with a pinnigin,
      Caught a fish but he dropped it in ag’in,
      Poor old Michael Finnegan (begin ag’in)

      There once was a man named Michael Finnegan,
      Climbed a tree and hit his shinnigin,
      Took off several yards of skinnigin,
      Poor old Michael Finnegan (begin ag’in)

      There was a man named Michael Finnegan,
      Had a wife called Biddy Finnegan,
      She chased him out, then chased him in agin–
      Which confused Michael Finnegan, begin agin.

      There was a man named Michael Finnegan,
      Had a daughter, Katherine Finnegan,
      She had her a job as a manniquinnagin,
      Pretty Katherine Finnegan, begin agin.

      There was an old man named Michael Finnegan
      He grew fat and then grew thin ag’in
      then he died, and had to begin ag’in
      Poor old Michael, please don’t begin ag’in <–(That verse is almost Buddhist, isn't it?)

      • Ughhhhhhh Mikey, not cool! This is me, refusing to read the verses you so happily looked up. I always try to avoid any other verses, because it makes the earworm way too long on the repeat circuit. And I’d like to thank you, for starting it up all over again with your informative post, I’m most appreciative 😛 NOT!

  6. Sis-Out-Law

    “Musicians, women and persons prone to worrying get [earworms] more often.” That explains a lot for me – I fall into all three categories.

    Little Bro and I could drive each other to distraction if we decided to engage in mutual earworm warfare. One that he uses from time to time on me:

    “Magic Carpet Ride,” Mighty Dub Katz. All he says to say is “ba dink dink dink dink” and the song starts.

    Another one that annoys me greatly:

    “Maui, Hawaiian Sup’pa Man,” Israel Kamakawiwo`ole:

    • I agree with your first example, though that one hasn’t affected me. The one from Bruddah Iz doesn’t fit the definition. While I realize it may have gotten stuck in your head, it isn’t actually either simple or repetitive. However, annoyance is an individual experience. Nice to see you here, btw.

  7. Pingback: All in a day’s…laziness? « She's Boxing Clever

  8. Pie

    All the songs mentioned on this post popped up in my head and burrowed their way in before I even played the vids. Thanks very much everyone. My head is now full and my brain has just started to bleed.

  9. Hi Mikey,

    I misheard the title of an art show and this one came up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYerwwTV5qc&p=826358B304E37C1D&playnext=1&index=25

    After that, every time I talked about the show, the earworm came back. Then at the show, almost constant. I haven’t heard this one for years but it’s very dangerous because it’s so hypnotic. I think the band was stoned when they recorded it.

    • Thanks so much for dropping by, Jen, The one you added fits not only the qualities of simplicity and repetition, especially in the rhythm tracks, but it’s also definitely hypnotic. It reminds me of Grateful Dead stuff they used to do only in concert. The classic earworm of this type is “In a Gadda da Vida” which is of course ‘In the Garden of Eden” performed when f-ed up.

  10. Hi Invisible Mikey, long time no see (pardon me but I’m sure you get that alot, lol).

    Well I hope I can introduce the ULTIMATE EARWORM that has wriggled its way from the 50s during the era of Nat King Cole through to the Moulin Rouge set. This song has also been song by David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Celine Dion, Ewan McGregor, and many others. It got stuck my head as a child when I heard some 80s version and it drove me nuts till I heard Ewan McGregor sing it in Moulin Rouge – thats when I did my research and dissected the worm. Even now its in my head…its creepy, its sad, its hopeful, its sentimental, its melodic, but most of all, its timeless…

    Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you NATURE BOY

    You have been forewarned…

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