Literatus: Unsticking the earworm

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

GREAT mystery writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his short-story The Imp of the Perverse (1945): “It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burthen of some ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches roman opera. Nor will we be the less tormented if the song in itself be good, or the opera air meritorious.”

This repetitive musical imagery is called “earworm,” a song that lodges itself in your brain and refuses to go. Around 98 percent of individuals experience earworms. While there is not so much difference across genders, it tends to last longer in women and irritate them more, according to the Adams study in 2009.

Earworm is notable in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, usually involving a small portion of a song, called a “hook.” Jean Struven Harris, the headmistress of The Madeira School for girls in McLean (Virginia), who killed her ex-lover Dr. Herman Tarnower, obsessed with the song Put the Blame on Mame and regularly recalled it for over 33 years. She could hold a conversation while playing it in her mind. She first heard the song in the film Gilda.


I am not saying the earworm can push people to kill. I simply want you to take note that this musical imagery can be so irritating especially to women and lasts longer too than in men. Earworm usually is usually 15 to 30 seconds long.

Certain songs are potential earworms. Songs with lyrics, according to the Hoff study in 2011, may account for 73.7 percent of earworms.

Instrumental music only causes 7.7 percent. Melodic songs tend to demonstrate repeated rhythm, making it capable of endless repetition in our memory. Only a climax in the arrangement can break this cycle.

Two studies in 2013 noted that actively blocking or eliminating the earworm from your mind are often less successful than passively accepting its presence until you forgot it. The researchers suggested engaging instead your working memory in moderately challenging tasks such as anagrams, Sudoku puzzles, or an absorbing novel.

The good news is, earthworm normally does not recur, and unlikely to persist for longer than 24 hours.

This attraction to recurrent songs in our head, Oliver Sacks explained in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain: “There are, of course, inherent tendencies to repetition in music itself. Our poetry, our ballads, our songs are full of repetition; nursery rhymes and the little chants and songs we use to teach young children have choruses and refrains. We are attracted to repetition, even as adults; we want the stimulus and the reward again and again, and in music we get it. Perhaps, therefore, we should not be surprised, should not complain if the balance sometimes shifts too far and our musical sensitivity becomes a vulnerability.”


Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on July 30, 2014.


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