Halftime Leisure

Whistle While you Work

April 23, 2014

Earworm (n)—that catchy, though sometimes unwarranted, 2-4 bar melody that won’t seem to get out of your head.

My roommates and I are always humming. Sometimes we’ve all caught on to Iggy Azalea’s Fancy, and sometime we might as well record ourselves as a living mashup. Always getting music “stuck” in our heads, I figured that we all probably just need to update our spotify playlists. But in fact, there is a lot more going on than simply hearing a song too many times. These tunes are called earworms. Often times, these soundbites just creep up on you around lunchtime even when you have not listened to music that day.

Whether it is a few lines of lyric, or merely the rhythm and tune of a song, earworms can catch us off guard and keep us hooked. However, I think that there is more to the pesky bugger than it getting stuck in your head—especially when the earworm can only make out the music behind the lyrics. Our brains use the tune to remind us of the words, but sometimes we cannot even do that. Instead we repeat the same 6 second long string of music notes, humming to the rhythm of the words without saying them at all. Here, the strength of sound overpowers the comprehension of words and the music takes on an altogether new meaning—whether its the way we felt while listening or the place we were when we heard the song.

I know that when I have an earworm, I tend to remain in one kind of mood. It becomes a focusing mechanism while I am writing or reading that keeps me looped into whatever I am doing at the time. Regardless of what the song may actually be saying, simply holding on to the pattern of the sounds creates a barrier between the world in my head, and the world outside of my world. Sometimes, trying to make out the words parallels trying to figure out the perfect word, or the answer to a logic problem. There is something just so rhythmic about the way our brains work that I think earworms help us tap into and/or distract us from.

According topsychologists and scientists that research these phenomena, Earworms can tell us about how we are feeling or what we may be feeling but have yet to come to terms with. Stress, anxiety, depression and other experiences can trigger an earworm. Almost like the devil on your shoulder, these tunes can remind us of things yet to be resolved. Alternatively, some have recorded that the song itself can be a trigger—the length and style of the notes and lyrics can cause an earworm to surface (my apologies for the rather unappealing imagery).

Though they can be a bit annoying, I like the idea that a tune or lyric could be stuck in my head for a reason; that the way that certain notes sound together could ignite a spark in my brain that has to burn until it is dealt with. It should make you pause next time you catch yourself repeating the chorus of TLC’s Waterfall or the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde. What is the music saying to you? What could this earworm have to say for your mood or productivity? Regardless of whether the earworm’s answer is positive or less than so, its persistence definitely speaks to the intricate connection—both overt and subliminal—between music and our experience of the world around us.


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