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:
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.
LET the EPIDEMIC BEGIN!