Play It Again, Sam

People love to listen to music.  And after my blog last week on musicals, I have had discussions with several people about different music genres and periods.  I’ve also been accused of spreading earworms.  I feel the pain – I’ve had a few myself.  The Hamilton musical songs are particularly ‘wormy’, and just when I think I’ve moved on, it starts up again. 

There is some interesting information about earworms on the internet.  (Well, let’s face it, there is ‘interesting’ information on the internet about everything under the sun!)  My quick search indicates an earworm, also known as stuck song syndrome (SSS), is part of a song replaying in a person’s mind, typically on a 20 second loop.  People with musical backgrounds, or individuals who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, may be more susceptible.  Earworms are most often correlated with music exposure, but can also be triggered by experiences that trigger a memory of a song.  I can relate.  I’ve traveled to New York City several times, and each time, while preparing for my trip, I have sung Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York.  Now, every time someone mentions a trip to New York, I immediately hear in my head, “Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today,” and if you’re family or a close friend, I’ll happily belt it out for you.

Earworms can last for hours, days, or even, in extreme cases, months.  I believe it!  When I was in high school, my mom was in the church choir and had been practicing an anthem called The Great Parade.  I didn’t care for the song, and it’s quite unfortunate, because it has been an earworm for me – intermittently of course – for the past 40 years.  There were several bars that were apparently vocally challenging, and she would sing it over and over.  She asked me to play the notes on the piano for her so she could hear how it went.  I declined because I didn’t like the song and I was a sulky teenager.  So she tried to plunk the notes out herself and she kept missing a sharp, hitting the bad note over and over.  Well, kiddies, pay attention, karma will come back and get you for not helping your mother when she asks for just a little bit of assistance after all she’s done for you.  Out of the blue, when I least expect it, I’ll be thinking of nothing, and then I’ll hear it in my head…

I want to join the great pa-raaade

I want to join the happy car-a-van

And that bad note?  That horribly off-key, wrong note is a part of the earworm that burrows into my brain.

Any gamers out there?  You might not think you’re noticing the background music on a video game as you play for a chunk of time, trying to get to the next level.  But it can come back to haunt you.  What kid that grew up in the 90s doesn’t know the ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bup of the Mario Bros. music?  Anybody know Tetris?  I loved that game.  I spent hours trying to nest falling shapes into place without leaving any empty spaces.  (Yes, much like a jigsaw puzzle.)  I played – a lot – and when I would close my eyes at night, not only would the music loop endlessly through my mind, I could also see the falling pieces passing across my eyelids.  Did it make me stop playing?  Do people stop listening to music because of earworms?  No.

I also found an article dedicated to the study of earworms on the webpage of the American Psychological Association.  Sticky songs commonly have an upbeat tempo and a fairly generic and easy to remember melody.  The reason you remember commercial jingles has more to do with the catchiness of the song than the number of times you’ve actually seen it.

               My bologna has a first name, it’s o-s-c-a-r

What about the Faygo theme song?  Even if you can’t remember all the words, you can keep singing the ones you do remember over and over in an endless loop.

Comic books and rubber bands

Climb into the tree tops

Falling down and holding hands

Tricycles and redpop

Remember when you were a kid

Well part of you still is

And that’s why we drink Faygo


Happy, easy to remember melody, as well as repetition, also explain why you remember those songs from childhood.

Row, row, row your boat

Gently down the stream,

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream.

To be honest, I rarely made it to the merrily, merrily part when sung as a round.  As a kid, I was absolutely AWFUL at singing rounds.  Unless I put my fingers in my ears and closed my eyes, I inevitably ended up singing the same part as the person sitting next to me, and the part I was supposed to be singing would be lost in the flames of the campfire.

Speaking of kids, they seem to enjoy those earwormy songs, and they seem to have a need to spread them around.  My nephew sang, This Is The Song That Doesn’t End endlessly.  I remember singing an infinite number of verses of John Jacob Jingleheimer-Schmidt on car trips.  My dad told me when he was a kid he sang, ‘spring would be such dreary weather, if there was nothing else but spring, would be such dreary weather’ repeat, repeat, repeat.

I have heard that the cure for an earworm is to listen to the song in its entirety.  The premise is that once you have heard the song completed, you will be able to move on.  I’ve tried this.  I can’t say whether it works or not.  You’re never really aware when the loop quits playing in your head, right?  If you think about it, it starts up again.  I have to say I was amused by a few of the offered suggestions from the internet.

  • Chew gum.   (Really?  I know it works for making your ears pop on a plane.  Is there a connection?)
  • Let it play out on its own.  (Come now.  That’s not a cure.  That’s giving up.)
  • Listen to another song.  (This one seems to have merit.)
  • Do a puzzle.  (Actually, if it’s quiet, that’s often when mine start.  Best to listen to a book or music.)

Did you hear the tunes above as you were reading?  Something tells me that sometime this week, you may have the earworm experience. You’re welcome.

2 thoughts on “Play It Again, Sam

  1. There she was just a-walking down the street – singing “do wah ditty ditty dum ditty do”…”

    “Hey hey, Paula, I wanna marry you. Hey hey, Paul, I want to marry you too.”

    These 2 oldies have been with me for longer than I can remember. They just pop in and hang out for a few days. Luckily, I love both the songs. Thanks for bringing them back to life, Sue.


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