Monday, June 25, 2012

Explaining the "Earworm."

by Julia Buckley

Every day, without fail, I wake up with a song in my head.  That's not surprising, because I'm a musical person and I like to sing and hum.  What's odd is that the songs are never the ones I expect to wake up with, and sometimes they take me WAY into the past.  For example, I recently woke up with the Levi's commercial above in my head--a commercial from around 1970.

It's actually a great tune, although when I play it my children scream and beg for mercy.  I always liked it, back when I watched it on tv.  But the question is, why did it pop into my head in 2012 with no apparent provocation?

This blog calls the unbidden tune an "earworm," and suggests that we have little control--or understanding--of why these tunes come back to us.  "To a psychologist – or at least to this psychologist – the most interesting thing about earworms is that they show a part of our mind that is clearly outside of our control. Earworms arrive without permission and refuse to leave when we tell them to. They are parasites, living in a part of our minds that rehearses sounds" (Stafford).

Tom Stafford also suggests that earworms become "musical memories," and therefore they don't have finite lives.  Once we have a tune imprinted on our brains, it is potentially there forever, to emerge at any unexpected time. Stafford writes that "the mind is an inner world which we do not have complete knowledge of, or control over."  

I guess that's the best explanation for the random variety of songs that become my morning music--from children's songs I used to hear (the most recent was "God is bigger than the Boogie Man") to a ditty by Crowded House; from a Doors tune (and they are, by the way, a band I don't even like) to a gospel song.  The only thing these songs seem to have in common is that I never see them coming (or hear them, I guess I should say).

Stafford suggests that the only way to conquer an earworm is to make yourself sing something similar to it, thereby somehow confusing the circuitry of your brain and potentially destroying the "slave system" that patterns the repetitious cycle.

I'll give this a try--perhaps when "Winter Wonderland" pops into my head at work, as it so often does.

Or, if all else fails, I'll just learn to really love that song.  :)

What was your latest earworm?


Sandra Parshall said...

Now you've put Winter Wonderland in my mind and it will play there unceasingly for days. Thanks a bunch, Julia! :-)

Surely there's a pill we could take for this? Don't we have a pill for everything?

Julia Buckley said...

Haha. Maybe there is one--but I suppose I'd have to consult a medical blog for that rather than a psychological one. :)

Not sure why it's the winter songs, but I also get Frosty the Snowman in my head while at work. I think it might have to do with a certain rhythm of my feet as I walk down the hall--but who knows?

LD Masterson said...

I'm almost afraid to admit this, but I had Ravel's Bolero stuck in my head earlier. No idea why.

Jody said...

For some odd reason, I had Bali Hai from South Pacific in my head most of last week. Now that I've recalled it, I'll probably be hearing it again this week. 8-)

Julia Buckley said...

LD--that's a pretty cool song to have stuck in there. It could be WAY worse. :) (Are you a Dudley Moore fan, by any chance?)

Jody, I LOVE that song! There's something very mystical about it.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I've known they were called earworms for a long time, since before blogs, and I learned during my clinical social work training that 99 percent of our minds are outside our conscious control. I don't resent earworms from my own unconscious as much as those induced by someone else singing, humming, or whistling off key. And mysteriously, the earworm that visits me most often is "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful"--which I didn't even know as a child, since I'm Jewish. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

My daughter tells me that the way to get rid of an earworm is to tell someone about it. By passing it along, you're not bothered by it anymore.

Julia Buckley said...

Interesting, Liz! I wonder if those Christmas songs are just the ones we hear with the most frequency, even if it's at only one time of year.

Anon, I'll have to try that--although I think even when I complain about a song to my husband, it still wanders around in there.