The worm that trilled

For most of this week, courtesy of watching The Talented Mr. Ripley at the weekend, Gabriel Yared‘s score has been firmly lodged inside my head.

A few years ago I took part in the annual Harkive music day. It’s a fascinating project which takes a snapshot (an instant recording might be a better term) of what people are listening to on a single day. You can see what was being listened to in 2015 here. Although I wasn’t altogether surprised by the music I listened to throughout that day, what did surprise me was the amount of music that audio-streamed itself through my head – my own personal sound-system better known as an ear-(or brain-) worm.

Usually the ear-worm is persistent and comes out of nowhere. Most of the time it’s classical music, and often prompts me to listen to music I haven’t heard for a long time (an unexpectedly positive side to an ear-worm). Sometimes it’s the theme tune to a TV programme, or  music from a filmAt its most irritating it’s an advertising jingle or a snippet of a pop song, and can sometimes be something I haven’t heard for many years…

Although there’s not been a huge amount of research done on the topic, what has been done is fascinating. One of the earliest explorations of “musical imagery repetition” (as ear-worms are more formally described) was in the psychoanalyst, and early Freud pupil, Theodor Reik‘s The haunting melodyPublished in 1953, Haunting melody focuses principally not on those tunes that stick in our heads because we’ve recently heard them (as with my Ripley tune), but “haunting melodies” that return throughout your life, and that (in Reik’s opinion)  have an underlying psychological meaning.

A very clumsy analogy might be that hearing the “slasher theme” from Psycho every time you meet a particular colleague would suggest that your feelings towards them are somewhat ambivalent!

A quick straw-poll around the office suggested that several of us had these “haunting melodies” with Mozart being a particular favourite – for one staff member Papageno and Papagena regularly eased a fear of flying, while Cherubino was a sign of happiness for another. There’s more information about The haunting melody and responses to it here.

More recent studies of musical imagery repetition have tended to be in psychology rather than music journals, and have been rather more scientific. Research published in The British Journal of Psychology, 2010, 101 (electronic version also available for those with University of Cambridge access) –  Earworms (‘stuck song syndrome’): Towards
a natural history of intrusive thoughts by C. Philip Beaman and Tim I. Williams supported previous evidence that ear-worms were more common, lasted longer, and appeared to be more irritating amongst people for whom music was an important part of their life (whether or not they were trained musicians). However they didn’t appear to be markedly more common among musicians, and, perhaps most interestingly, they covered a wide variety of music. Pop music appeared to be the most common ear-worm with Justin Timberlake and Pink Floyd both frequent offenders. Although “simple” songs such as jingles or children’s songs were present, contrary to previous thought they were not predominant suggesting that it’s less the simplicity of the song that is important in establishing it as an ear-worm than its idiosyncratic relationship with the person who has the experience.

A more musical perspective was offered by Sean Bennett in his Cambridge MPhil thesis. Sean created the phrase “musical imagery repetition” as a more accurate description of the ear-worm; it also reflected the fact that ear-worms are not the only “images” that pop into our brains unexpectedly – it’s not uncommon for images or text to intrude, though music appears to be the most widespread and irritating of these unexpected mental visitors. Bennett included in his survey of MIR both tunes that popped involuntarily into the head and those that were used as an internal jukebox. I’m not entirely sure that I would think of the latter as an ear-worm, although (as an internal jukebox user myself) once the tune is on your mind it can develop into an ear-worm that refuses to leave.

Rhythmic repetitive movement or boredom seemed to be prime hunting grounds for ear-worms, with many instances of “stuck songs” spontaneously arising while walking or doing a repetitive job. 75% of those surveyed by Bennett reported hearing music with lyrics – a quick poll of my friends and colleagues (thanks all for sharing ear-worm experiences, and giving me some unpleasant ear-worms) suggested that music without lyrics is more common among musicians. Though there were exceptions, notably friends involved in musical theatre who tended to hear lyrics more frequently.

There was one other unusual characteristic that Sean Bennett came across. The ear-worm appeared to be slightly more common in the UK than the US, though there was no clear reason for this.

So what’s the purpose of ear-worms, and can they be cured? Bennett’s conclusion was that musical imagery repetition may be important in consolidating and improving memory. If this is correct, it may well explain the importance of music – it’s not “just” about culture or enjoyment, it also contributes enormously to the health of our mind.

As for cures – my personal preference is to listen to the offending tune, a quick burst of YouTube and it will usually go away. Another friend swears by El Paso sung by Marty Robbins. I have tried this and it does appear to work, though I suspect it was the cowboy reference that has now fixed another ear-worm in my head. Sometimes irritating, occasionally inspiring, and still largely unresearched, ear-worms often unwittingly testify to the importance and prevalence of music in our lives. For another MusiCB3er’s ear-worm experience, see Everything is awesome.

“Another ear-worm in my head”


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About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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