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Music: Worming your way into a hit song

By Leslie Herman
ART TIMES Spring 2014

Ear worm
Earworm: credit Jamie Herman

Found a peanut, found a peanut, found a peanut last night.
Last night I found a peanut; found a peanut last night.

Remember that? We sang it as kids over and over and over. We never tired of it.

So why should a never-ending version of Lionel Ritchie’s All night long, (all night), all night long, (all night), all night long (all night), all night long (all night) drive a person off the edge? Because it does, alright?!?!?!

Sorry, I didn’t mean to shout, but I recently caught an earworm, and it was an aggravating condition. It’s not rare, in fact it’s extremely common, and I’ve had them before, but it was the first time I’d experienced such a chronic bout of this most persistent bug (is a worm a bug? maybe not, but for the purpose of this essay it will be). Chronic? It was so extreme that it robbed me of sleep for a good month.

The insomnia was a direct effect of the bug at first: a hook or an entire chorus of a song would start in my head and wouldn’t stop.

Later on in the month, I began to feel its effect indirectly: the mere idea of the pesky earworm would inspire such a dread of its return that I avoided sleep. When I gave in and turned in, insomnia kicked in; in other words, fearing the earworm’s return, I feared sleep, which kept me awake until I was too exhausted to sleep. And the torture of the sticky needle night after night caused daytime malfunction to boot. Nice case of a vicious cycle, right?

The bug was relentless, and for me it was at its worst in the wee hours of the night and cheeky early morning--that precious, essential-for-wellbeing time of day. So, if I’d wake if I or the cat needed putting out, where normally I would fall right back to sleep, with this bloody bug on parade, a tune would catch and that would be it. I’d pretty much be up for the rest of the night.

Whichever tune played, it played and played all night long (all night). All night long (all night). All night long (all night).

Here’s one, which played, for example: the second chorus (the clapping chorus) of Florence and the Machine’s Dog Days are Over: -

‘Run fast for your mother run fast for your father
Run for your children and your sisters and brothers
Leave all your love and your loving behind you
Can't carry it with you if you want to survive’

Want to try to experience the earworm to the max? Raise the volume on the clapping, and then after the ninth or tenth time around increase the speed.

Another fine example of my ear worm hell was caused by Pharrell Williams’ Happy:-

Because I'm happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do’

Williams’ Happy has got to be the catchiest, clappiest, most upbeat chorus I have heard in a while. I’m not surprised this caught in my head, but I didn’t want it there forever and I really did wish it would stop.

If you haven’t seen the video yet, I recommend it.

Here’s another random tune-cum-earworm to bring this essay alive with the sound of music:-

Boney M’s Brown Girl in the Ring (Tra la la la la):

‘Brown girl in the ring
Tra la la la la
There's a brown girl in the ring
Tra la la la la la
Brown girl in the ring
Tra la la la la
She looks like a sugar in a plum
Plum plum’

Even in the morning, the same random tune continued to play incessantly inside my head. Why? I had no idea. I had heard of the term earworm back in my radio days and was quite intrigued by the phenomenon, but I’d never been held to ransom by it.

While I was infected, the intrigue kept me from doing anything constructive towards ridding myself of it. So sleep deprived was I that I must not have had enough brain cells firing to approach it. So, now, with earworms a near-distant nightmare, I’ve decided to drill down and find out: What is going on? What cruel trick of the mind is at work? And who’s getting paid?

Here’s what I found out:

There are fascinating and complicated explanations of earworm to do with the memory system of the left primary auditory cortex (, but simply, earworms are defined as ‘stuck song syndrome, or the inability to dislodge a song and prevent it from repeating itself in one’s head’. It is a phenomenon that has been around for centuries and has been noted in literature, for example, by Edgar Allen Poe in 1845 and Mark Twain circa 1876, but has not been taken seriously enough to warrant scientific study until recently.

It is a neurological phenomenon, and amongst its most prominent researchers, James Kellaris coined the condition in his native German, the Ohrwurm . He describes it as a ‘cognitive itch: the only way to scratch it is to repeat it over and over and over in our minds.’

Over coffee, I asked musical theatre composer, Patrick Steed (Stalking John Barrowman), what he knew about earworms. I purposely fit my question casually into our conversation so as not to influence his response in any way, and his off-the-cuff answer was enlightening. ‘I think there is an art to creating an earworm’, Patrick replied, illustrating that his understanding of this syndrome, this medical phenomenon, was from a creative and, more significantly, a commercial perspective.

This is a perfectly valid and quite interesting response in light of the fact that James Kellaris is a consumer psychologist and a marketing teacher. Steed continued: ‘One of my favourite composers will help me explain what I mean. Alan Menken, [musical theatre and film composer and pianist, best known for his scores for films produced by Walt Disney Animation], is an incredible artist. He understands how to catch the listener in an instant. I felt like I knew his music after hearing it only once. Instantly, I was able to sing it. Take, for example, the opening song from Beauty and the Beast:

Little town, it's a quiet village
Every day like the one before
Little town full of little people
Waking up to say...


There goes the baker with his tray, like always
The same old bread and rolls to sell
Every morning just the same
Since the morning that we came
To this poor provincial town

Look, there she goes
the girl is strange, no question
dazed and distracted, can't you tell?
never part of any crowd
cause her head's up on some cloud
no denying she's a funny girl, that Belle

look, there she goes, that girl is so peculiar
I wonder if she's feeling well
with a dreamy, far-off look
and her nose stuck in a book
what a puzzle to the rest of us is Belle

ohhhhhh....isn't this amazing? Steed explained, ‘There’s balance between the repetition and the variation. There’s enough that is the same so you can predict where it’s going, and is balanced with substantial variation.

‘It’s either getting the perfect balance of repetition and variation or it is something that feels so good in the soul; bits of songs the feel really good, a cool couple of notes that stay in your head and you can relive it, and your brain wants to relive it.’

Don’t ‘ya know that I heard it through the grapevine?
and I’m just about to lose my mind,
honey, honey yea…

From a marketing perspective, with our minds so receptive, it easy to see how it underpins the formula to create a hit song or a jingle that guarantees a sell-out product.

Kellaris’ research figures that 98% of individuals experience earworms; that women and men experience it equally often, but earworms tend to last longer for women and irritate them more. Another researcher, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, points to people with OCD as more likely to suffer from earworm attacks.

All the research points to me as a perfect target. I don’t mind a bit of suffering for my art – as long as I gain something from it. At last, in the case of earworms, I have.

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