Friday Five: Ohrwürm

The latest Friday Five, courtesy of Dave:

I’ve been reading a lot about Neurology lately, and the rhythm’s behind our thought processes. As if by fate, I came across this article yesterday that sums up one of the most insidious kinds of mental loops we all fall into. They’re known as earworms.

“Earworm” is the term coined by University of Cincinnati marketing professor James Kellaris for the usually unwelcome songs that get stuck in people’s heads. Since beginning his research in 2000, Kellaris has heard from people all over the world requesting help, sharing anecdotes and offering solutions.

“I quickly learned that virtually everybody experiences earworms at one time or another,” he said. “I think because it’s experienced privately and not often a topic of conversation, maybe people really long for some social comparison. They want to know if other people experience what they experience.”

So, what are the top 5 “earworms” you’ve faced in your life?

Okay, well, first: “earmworm” is less a new coinage than a transliteration of the German expression for having something stuck in one’s head. I remember this because my friend Hai Nguyen, a German, told me one day when I had a song stuck in my head. I find it amusing that Kellaris isn’t credited with actually coming out and saying that. I wonder if he did. Anyway…

As a musician, I’ve been trained to be able to listen carefully, retain, and mimic musical patterns in my head. It’s an ability that you can train or cultivate. However, I am just as prone to an attack of the “earworm”, meaning getting songs or other things stuck in my head. Here are some of the most powerfully sticky tunes I’ve ever tried to get out of my head:

  1. The main theme from the first piece of music I ever wrote. Many people reported having this tune in their head even a couple of days after the recital. I have a recording of it on a DAT tape here in Korea, but I haven’t had a chance to burn it to CD (though, when I do, I will make an MP3 of that track available here on this website). It was performed on two pianos and an electric guitar, was probably the most surprising and complicated piece composed by a beginner composition student in about a decade, and the hardest thing, and I think the catchy thing about it, was that it had a very strange composite rhythm of 3+2+3+4+3+2+3+6 repeating over and over and over, and then the rhythms superimposed staggered. Even now I sometimes get the primary theme in my head.
  2. The jingle for the Chicken Tonight commercials. My mother used to sing it around the house, and once I had to holler at her to stop it because I was actually fighting to get it out of my head and going crazy because every time it went away, she’s start singing it to herself and I’d go crazy hearing that damn theme again. Especially disturbing was the fact that I had the tune in my head the way she sang it, not the way it sounded on the commercial.
  3. The bass line in the beginning of the song It’s All In Your Mind from Beck’s Sea Change album. I hear that bass line a lot.
  4. The modulations section in Pursuance, which is the first movement of John Coltrane‘s A Love Supreme album. I used to sing that all the time, the modulations would go on endlessly in my head, all kind of looped together into a constant series of chords. Once I was humming it to myself that in my Social Studies class while working on classwork; I didn’t even know I was humming it till my teacher told me off.
  5. I’ll have to look it up to be sure, but I think the name of the movement is The Procession of the Sage, in Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It’s the dark spooky bit after the first wild and crazy section. That string section with the repeated upper note and the slowly climbing notes that this repeated note falls to, combined with the dark voices of the woodwinds, just feels like this slow, loping evil ancient thing shambling out of the shadows of history… and it has run through my head so many times that it just seems natural to me to hear it at any random time. It’s just spooky, beautiful, downright powerful music. It runs a chill down my spine every time I hear it. And I have heard it a lot, since somewhere during the first year of my studies of music, I decided Stravinsky, and not Schoenberg, had figured out the best route into the 20th century of music… and proceeded to listen to the Rite of Spring every day, once a day, for a year or more.

My runner-up: these days I am writing a song and, as part of the process, that song is ALWAYS running through my head now. It has a strange melody, wih a bunch of whole tone steps in both the verse and chorus, but the verses are dark and harsh and vaguely sexy, while the chorus is more declarative and rebellious against everything. If that makes any sense. I have the rhythms for bass and drums and guitar loosely aranged in my head. But it’s not perfect yet. So, on and on it plays. And I suspect it will sound nothing like how I imagine, once we actually learn it. But I am learning that’s just part of the process of making rock songs. (Myoung says it’s musical limitations, but I think it’s also differing tastes.)

For those curious about what earworms others suffer from, the other F5 participants are: Melissa, Adam, Merideth, Will, Chris, Gina, Dave, Colleen, Craig, Gord, Adrienne, and Nanette, Marvin, Rob, and welcome Laura of Green Boogers. Go check them out!

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