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    Tis the Season: How Songs Burrow Into Your Brain

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    I assume you've heard this song "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. It goes like, "Ahh, Home, Let me come Home, Home is whenever I'm with you. Ahh ..." It's probably the most parasitic song I've heard since that Foster the People song "Pumped Up Kicks," which I spent the entirety of a three-hour drive late last summer listening to non-stop because I just couldn't turn it off no matter how much I wanted the song to have never existed. It was like some shitty chain store pizza where you know it's not that good but you just keep eating until you're sick and how did that even happen? So now it's this other song, which is at about the same level of "just OK" and also bears the distinction of being the most NPR song I've ever heard on NPR.

    I'd call these "earworms" but, to be honest, earworm has too positive of a connotation. It's like saying "has a great hook," but both of these songs have great hooks only in their ability to get stuck, which is different. I don't think either one is very good, and, really, I hate everything about "Home," especially its fake-ass "ma and pa" folksiness.

    There is actual science behind earworms, naturally, and I think we should have a look. Fortunately, science delivers a more apt name than "earworm": Involuntary Musical Imagery, or INMI for short (L-O-L). A 2010 paper from the University of Reading describes it as such: "Simply, an earworm is the experience of an inability to dislodge a song and prevent it from repeating itself in one’s head."

    Turns out this is actually a fairly popular area of research in recent years. An article in the journal Psychology of Music last year makes an attempt at explaining how INMI begins. Scientific American explains:

    The study was an exercise in crowd sourcing. BBC radio station 6 Music runs a morning breakfast show in which listeners describe their earworms. Taking 2,424 reports during several months in both 2009 and 2010, the researchers analyzed 333 of them. The study also included an analysis of 271 of the 1308 responses to online questionnaires from BBC sites as well as radio networks in the U.S. and Australia. The results are not entirely surprising, but they do demonstrate that almost any thought or sensory perception can hit the “on” switch. Hearing The Village People’s “YMCA” can get the mental tape rolling. Other head music may be induced by a memory from summer camp, the stresses of work or simply the boredom of office meetings.

    In 2006, neurology celeb Oliver Sacks wrote about INMI in the journal Brain. Sacks implies that the problem is that these are songs that we just like too much, in a sense.

    All of us have experienced the involuntary, helpless mental replaying of songs or tunes, or snatches of music we have just been exposed to, by chance, even, perhaps, without ‘listening’ consciously. We call such tunes ‘catchy’—and they are sometimes referred to as ‘earworms,’ for they may burrow into us, entrench themselves and then perseverate internally hundreds of times a day, only to evaporate, fade away, in a day or two, perhaps to be followed by the next earworm. This often meaningless perseveration is quite unlike voluntary musical imagery, and unlike the involuntary musical imagery that may be evoked by a sight, a sound, a word, with some significant, though often unconscious, association (although this may then turn into a earworm). Perseverative music has much more the character of a cerebral automatism, suggesting cerebral networks, perhaps both cortical and subcortical, caught in a circuit of mutual excitation. I do not think there are comparable phenomena with other types of perception—certainly not with visual experience. For instance, I am a verbal creature myself, and though sentences often permute themselves in my mind and suddenly surface as I am writing, I never have verbal ‘earworms’ comparable with musical ones.

    Which is a neat explanation, but there's certainly more. According to James J. Kellaris, University of Cincinnati marketing professor and noted earworm expert, there are three main things.

    Repetition: One theme song that respondents reported as getting stuck in their heads often was "Mission: Impossible." Kellaris was not surprised. "A repeated phrase, motif or sequence might be suggestive of the very act of repetition itself, such that the brain echoes the pattern automatically as the musical information is processed," he says.
    Musical simplicity: Simpler songs appear more likely to make your brain itch. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of getting Barney's "I Love You, You Love Me" song stuck can attest to that. Generally, children's songs are more prone to getting stuck than classical music, Kellaris says.
    Incongruity: When a song does something unexpected, it can also spark a cognitive itch. Examples include the irregular time signatures of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" or the song "America" from West Side Story. Unpredictable melodic patterns or an unexpectedly articulated individual note can have the same impact.

    I'd say that the first two and kinda/sorta/maybe not the last point are all at work with my current curse. As for getting rid of the thing, most suggestions revolve around either replacing it or distracting yourself. There's actually an app called Earwurm that will offer up some other popular song in the hopes of erasing the current one. Which of course doesn't solve the problem, just changes it to something else, like punching yourself in the face to get your mind off a toothache (I've done it). 

    Psychologist Vicky Williamson told NPR a while back, "So I've been collecting cures, and I'm going to study them just as well as I'm studying the earworms ... [The songs used to combat earworms] tend to be slow, which is an interesting characteristic. Some people think that the British national anthem sung quite slow is good for getting rid of earworms." Seems reasonable, I suppose. Though in this particular case, it seems like just trying to recall the "God Save the Queen" melody--I'm coming up blank--is doing the job on "Home" in and of itself.

    Meanwhile, Motherboarder Martin Connelly suggests viewing this:

    Today is Christmas Eve and maybe you've noticed that I've somehow come this far without mentioning Christmas music. The interesting thing about Christmas music and earworms is that I think it all just becomes a base layer of noise, or maybe like earworm vacuum energy, at least if you spend any time in public places: "Jingle Bell Rock" crashing into "Silent Night" into "White Christmas" and so on until it's all just a foaming sea of death-cheer. And the net result is actually an amplification effect on other earworms, like "Home," which now need even more earworm energy to protrude over the Christmas music "floor." Consider, for example, the "White Christmas" studies on the propensity of normal humans to hallucinate said song in fields of unadorned pure noise. It's always just there. 

    How evil is that?

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.