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On the songs in our heads

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Do you ever get songs stuck in your head?

So opened a blog post by Deidra Alexander, fiction writer. (I have not read her fiction. I just follow her blog.)

Yes, I do, Deidra. So I expected an amusing accounting of a phenomena I’m quite familiar with.

But then she went to say, “I have a few that I cycle through.” And went on to list exactly… three songs.

Three? Your whole life, just three?

And her main one was “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Franki Valli. Two lines of it, to be exact. “I don’t even know the rest of the words,” she writes.

Uh, you’ve had this song stuck in your head off and on for years and you’ve never bothered to hear and learn the rest of it? What? (Tip: Listening to a “stuck” song can actually be a way to get it out of your head.)

Then the other two are:

  • A folk song
  • A children’s show theme song.

I mean… Having such a limited and unappealing internal playlist sounds like a freakin’ nightmare.

Yet, Deidra seems perfectly content with this situation, not describing it at all negatively but just as an amusing little fact of her life.

I have to stop being surprised that people aren’t like me.

Thing is, I know there are people who basically never get songs stuck in their head—I’m married to one of those. But I had just assumed that those who did experienced much as I do: That while it was fairly common to have some song stuck in one’s head, the song in question changed frequently over a life time. Three songs? I’ve surely experienced this phenomenon with hundreds.

dj-earworm

Photo courtesy of www.m3ga.net

Most of these occurrences come and go without making it into my long-term memory. But some I recall because they’re associated with an unusual place or event. When I was in Berlin, U2’s “Zoo Station” rattled around after we visited that very train stop (the U2). On our Napa trip, I kept hearing “California Dreamin’”. When we adopted our cat Mocha, I inherited “Livin’ La Vida Loca” on internal repeat longer than was really pleasant (no matter how cute Ricky Martin is).

“And her skin’s the color mocha…”

Getting a Koodo phone spawned some days of Alanis Morrisette’s “Thank U” becoming my internal soundtrack, though it took me a while to figure out the association. Can you get it? It was this line:

“How’ bout that ever elusive kudo”…

And after 9/11, I was rather haunted by “American Tune”. (And I dreamed I was dying / I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly / And looking back down at me / Smiled reassuringly / And I dreamed I was flying / And high up above my eyes could clearly see / The statue of liberty…)

Sorry to bring down the room.

On a lighter note, spring 2013 was all “Blurred Lines” on repeat, which was so annoying! But that one didn’t relate to any particular event or place. It’s just a super-sticky song. (As is that horrid “We Built This City” song. Ugh!)

Often I don’t know what inspires the song stickiness, though. This week’s song in my head is Adam Lambert’s “For Your Entertainment”, a fave kitchen karaoke (complete with dance steps). Of course, that it’s Lambert is certainly no surprise; but why not a Queen song, since that’s mainly what I’m listening to him sing these days? (Queen + Adam Lambert being back on tour.)

(Speaking of karaoke, now I’m reminded of someone who insisted the only songs she possibly knew well enough to karaoke where ones by Wham! Apart from the very weirdness of only being melodically familiar of a single 80s band (what, no Beatles? No We Will Rock You?), now I wonder: Does this poor person have “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” as their one and only earworm?)

So many questions.

Fortunately, science is on it! You can follow along with the Earworm Project to learn:

  1. What features do typical earworm music tunes have in common?
  2. What do people who frequently experience earworms have in common?
  3. What causes earworms?
  4. What cures earworms?

One intriguing finding:

We’re working with the hypothesis that people are getting earworms to either match or change their current state of arousal—or a combination of the two.” She adds, “Maybe you’re feeling sluggish but need to take your child to a dance class, so it could be that an earworm pops into your hear that’s very upbeat, to help you along. Or working in reverse, can earworms act to calm you down?” It would explain why we sometimes get earworms even when we haven’t been listening to music at all, or why people who spend a great deal of time in nature often report beginning to hear every sound—wind blowing, leaves rustling, water rippling—as music, which their brain spontaneously plays over and over. Just as important, it would help explain why our brains often seem to linger on music that we don’t particularly care for.

From Anatomy of an ear worm

Playlist of ear worms referenced in this post (including Deidra’s big opportunity to hear the rest of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” but excluding “We Built This City”, because I’m not a sadist).

One thought on “On the songs in our heads

  1. I am more like you, my earworm playlist definitely exceeds three songs! One thing I have noticed in recent years is the tendency for certain TV show theme songs to become earworms — due most likely to binge-watching series. Examples of those, for me, have been the theme song from The Wire, the Game of Thrones intro, the Big Bang Theory intro song, the Black Sails intro, and most recently, the Outlander theme song because I am rewatching season 1 with my husband while also watching season 2. Plus, I am not sleeping well at night, often waking up around 3:00 or so, and immediately, the Skye Boat Song starts playing in my head. ARGH!

    The odder ones are the totally random songs that suddenly get stuck in your head and you have no idea why — sometimes songs you don’t even really know that well, maybe just a couple of lines or something, and that you’ve not heard anywhere recently. For a multitude of reasons, I don’t listen to any sort of radio and rarely listen to any music anywhere anymore (although I have started listening to some Chemical Brothers when I do cardio at the gym, mostly because the gym music seems to lean more towards rap/urban stuff I’m not keen on), so it’s always really odd when I get a totally random snippet of something stuck on replay.

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