The Earworm Ouroboros
Lani just e-mailed Krissie and me and said that she’d heard “My loves grows where my Rosemary goes” yesterday and now she can’t get out of her head.
Krissie e-mailed back with “It’s a Small World After All.”
So I sent them the lyrics to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” That chorus is a killer.
I knew there was a name for them, the annoying songs that you cannot get out of replay in your brain, so I googled: They’re earworms and it turns out the reason you can’t dump them is that your brain pays more attention to unfinished things. According to Bill Thompson at the University of Toronto, the key culprits are simplicity, repetition and circularity, and the worst of these is circularity; a song with a circular structure (verse/chorus/verse/chorus) will just cycle in your head endlessly eating its own tail while your brain tries to find the place that it ends. And evidently almost all brains do it: according to another study, ninety-eight percent of people are afflicted with earworms at one time or another, and seventeen percent of people have had the problem last for days (“Dissecting Earworms: Further Evidence on the ‘Song-Stuck-in-Your Head’ Phenomenon, James J. Kellaris, PhD, presentation to Society for Consumer Psychology, Feb. 22, 2003).
The part that stuck with me was the brain being consumed by the unfinished. This explains why writing a book can be so hellish: it takes a year to finish the sucker and your brain knows it’s not done. So you stare off into space, trying to find the end, your brain going into meltdown because the book is just too damn big, placated somewhat by the idea of acts and scenes, but knowing all along that It’s Not Finished and haunting your dreams. You think having “Who Let The Dogs Out?” stuck in your head is bad, try having You Again.
So what are the worst offenders? James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati compiled a top ten list, but the top spot is “Other;” that is, most people get something individual like “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes” or “The Mesopotamians” on their endless loops. We are specific in our attachments. But there were nine frequent earworms that followed “Other”. Read on at your own peril:
1. Other. Everyone has his or her own worst earworm.
2. Chili’s “Baby Back Ribs” jingle.
3. “Who Let the Dogs Out”
4. “We Will Rock You”
5. Kit-Kat candy-bar jingle (“Gimme a Break …”)
6. “Mission Impossible” theme
8. “Whoomp, There It Is”
9. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
10. “It’s a Small World After All”
Well, I warned you. And here’s the bad news: There appears to be no sure cure for earworms. Two thirds of the people Kellaris surveyed tried to get rid of the earworm by listening to another song, the dangers of which are obvious. Many people swear that passing the bug onto someone else does the trick. I’d write more but I must go e-mail Krissie and Lani the lyrics to “YMCA.” Just the chorus.
So what’s in your head?