How to cure an earworm – and other musical niggles!

Once again, we hand over to Douglas from the Music Library who this time tells us how to cure an earworm…

“There will be no medical advice given at all, in the process of the blog.

I have recently been suffering from an earworm, a little snippet of music which wheedles its way into your head and stays there until you workout what it is or why its there. Sometimes they are easy to recognise and you would think easy to dismiss, Sarah Millican the comedy performer was on Desert Islands Discs and one of her choices was Paul McCartney and The Frog Chorus, which is a fine choice and with its lyric of “We all Stand together” a great sentiment for where we are today, as long as we stand two metres apart and perhaps wear a mask, but I digress. A great choice but one that stayed in my head for weeks and writing about it now has put it back in my head.

The other kind of earworm is more difficult to deal with, if you cannot put a name to it and you have no idea why it’s there it is much more tricky to budge. I have been suffering from one of those lately but more of that in a moment.

In an episode of the hit comedy “The Big Bang Theory” entitled “The Earworm Reverberation”, Dr Sheldon Cooper is troubled by a short snippet of tune which he cannot put a name to and has no idea why it’s there, this infuriates him, which in turn infuriates his friends. Eventually he solves his earworm, naming it as Darlin’ by the Beach Boys. Knowing this, the title and the lyric, bring him to the realisation that he must win back his ex-girlfriend Dr Amy Farrah-Fowler and curing his earworm.

For most people, the earworm is a benign happening which for the most part lasts 15-30 secs, for 92% of people they happen once a week. Although there seems to be a majority of people who find the experience, as said earlier, benign, 33% described it as unpleasant with 15% going as far as to say it was disturbing. These figures are from an article in the Scientific American.

The fact that there are facts and figures about this phenomenon, means that people have done work on earworms. Erudite analysis have been produced, papers written by learned people, about why a snippet of a tune appears in your head and why it should annoy you for a little while.  One of those is Dr Vicky Williamson, an independent authority and consultant on the psychology of music who produced a paper and did research with the aid of the good listeners to BBC Radio 6’s breakfast show.

Dr Williamson collect many experiences of people’s earworms and concluded much from that information.

Triggers for earworms include:-

  • Recent music exposure – my experience with The Frog Chorus
  • Repeated music exposure
  • Word triggers or associations – the word Faith on a shoebox from the shop called Faith, on a shelf, caused the person to hear George Michael sing his hit song Faith, every time that person sat down in their office. The solution was to move the shoebox to where it could no longer be seen.
  • People triggers – where sight or memory of a person is associated with a song
  • Situation trigger – weddings can cause you to remember your own first dance song)
  • Stress – another person tells of a time when they were first to sit an important exam and the song Nathan Jones by Bananarama was stuck in that person’s head. Now at moments of stress, into their head pops Bananarama singing Nathan Jones.
    Surprise
  • Dreams
  • Mind wandering

The trigger for this article was my own earworm weeks ago. I was walking it to town when a few bars of a tune entered my head and would not go away. It was a short extract from a work I knew well and, as Thomas Beecham told a NY taxi driver who asked him not to whistle, “You my dear fellow, can only hear me whistling: I can hear the full orchestra.”

I could hear the full orchestra playing this slow building, hypnotic extract and I found myself willing the orchestra to go on to a place in the music in which I could put a name to it. This continued for weeks listening to the same few bars, over and again, as if on some cruel repeat, but just yesterday I succeeded in naming the piece which had been following me for weeks.

As I said I know this piece well and when I  finally came to my eureka moment  I shouted out “Symphony of Psalms” by Stravinsky, which caused my follow shoppers to throw me a glance.

In 1978, for the Higher Music exam, I studied two works, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra written in 1943 and premiered in 1944, this work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who also commissioned the Symphony Of Psalms in 1930 for the same Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary. In 1978 I choose to write about the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra for my exam. What caused me to hear that short extract from the last section of the Symphony of Psalms I have no Idea, I have listened to it many time since 1978. So, I found a recording to confirm my theory. Has it cured that particular earworm? As yet, I have no idea.

In my short readings on earworms it would seem that there is no lasting cure, if you are prone to them, they will return. There are tricks to alleviate them, the main ways to reduce your earworm problem is to engage or distract:

Engage – engage the earworm by listening to the full song or piece from beginning to end, so it is no longer a fragment, it is a full work.

Distract – do almost anything to take your mind of the little snippet. Read, sing, play an instrument, do D.I.Y, anything and hopefully if you distract yourself fully, wormy worm will wriggle away.

When my cure came in a eureka moment it was not before I had scoured the playlists of Naxos Music Library and watched concerts on Medici.TV containing likely suspects.

If your earworm is from the world of classical music, Naxos classical on the library’s webpages may guide you to a solution to your worm problem.

If the snippet you are searching for is some cool saxophone playing or some frenetic scream lead trumpet, then Naxos Jazz might be able to find the home of your critter.

Alternatively there are hundreds of hours of concert footage and opera performances on Medici.TV, which you could use to either help or distract you on your search for a cure!

If your earworm problem is from the rock, pop, folk worlds I am afraid we cannot, as yet, help with that. We do not have any apps for those genres but there are websites/apps which can.

Good luck and may all your earworms be little and solvable.”

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