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EXPERIENCING EARWORMS




(It will be the Winter Solstice in a few days, and after that the Ferris wheel of the seasons will start going up again, it will get lighter (but not warmer), and we will be on our way to Spring. The present topic doesn’t have anything to do with the Solstice that I can see, but it is something that I’ve been thinking about.)

 

I have been a musician for most of my life. Since my family migrated to Australia in 1968 until relatively recently (around 2005), I was a member of several music groups, playing the French horn in orchestras, including the Queensland Youth Orchestra and the Australian Youth Orchestra, and for operas, ballet and musicals (this was my part-time job in University days, playing “in the pit”). Most recently I was in our local Wind Ensemble, playing among other things themes from Miyazaki movies and immortal Japanese pop hits such as “Believe”. I studied music in Australia and got an Associate of Music diploma in French horn. I played lots of really great music, and went on music camps and overseas concert tours to Europe, the United States and Southeast Asia. I even got a scholarship to London to study for six months in 1973 with famous Australian horn player Barry Tuckwell. It was a pretty amazing ride. I am forever grateful to everyone involved for giving me this chance to develop this talent to the full.


But for some reason, these days I don’t listen to music very much, either in my car or around the house. In my car, I vastly prefer talking, either CDs like David Sedaris, or podcasts. And in my house, I prefer silence. I have to be in a very specific mood to choose voluntarily to listen to music.


This is kind of a conundrum, but I can provide one explanation. It is that I am very susceptible to earworms, which is the term for a tune that enters one’s head and won’t go away (until, perhaps, the next one supersedes it). If I listen to music, especially something I know well, it stays in my mind for at least a week, and this can get rather hard to live with.


Recently I have had a really persistent earworm. It happened when I decided to listen to a CD of Big Band jazz in my car. I know this CD quite well; when I was suffering from unrequited love about fifteen years ago, it was my constant companion to and from work because of one track by Duke Ellington called “Frustration”. I drove along, my teeth gritted, listening to this piece’s unbearable dissonances alternating with gentle, longing passages. Naturally I listened to the other tracks as well, and one of them – Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo-choo” – I used in my English class as an example of how judicious use of the accents in words can form rhythms in songs and poetry.


This CD has become a major earworm, not so muchj Duke Ellington (whose music is a little too idiosyncratic and complex to be an earworm) but especially Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, whose insistent rhythms, blaring trumpets, booming drums, and contorting trombones have started to make me uneasy, even without the earworm factor. It seems to encapsulate all the cruelty and gender inequality (to put it mildly) of the 40s and 50s in the US. Of course, it is those tracks in particular that my mind has seemingly decided to single out for earworm priority. Out of nowhere I find myself humming “String of Pearls” or “Pennsylvania 6500”, to the point where I shout, “Stop it!” It isn’t just the melody, either. Big Band jazz is quite complex, but my mind knows every twist and turn, every instrument that comes in, every doo-be-doo-wah, of the tracks on that CD.  


There is only one remedy for an earworm of this power. Every time one notices that one is at its mercy, the idea is to try to replace the offending piece of music with another one, perhaps not so offensive. In the same time frame as I was listening to Glenn Miller, I had a CD set of my favorite opera, Tosca, which I was also listening to. (I played this opera in English around the early 70s, but listening to it in Italian I have learned quite a few of the words.) Each time I found myself humming “Chattanooga Choo-choo”, I retaliated by belting out a few bars of one of the more famous arias, “Recondita armonia” or “Vissi d’arte”. It silenced the C.C-C, at least for awhile, and I was able to have a few blessed moments of a completely different kind of music to fill my head.  


I wonder how many people suffer as I do with this. It is a major reason why I have all but stopped listening to music. I like the music while I am listening, but my mind wants to go back and back to it afterwards, placing the needle in the groove and replaying it over and over, until it practically drives me mad. Maybe it is a consequence of having CDs of music I like, and pretty much limiting myself to listening to them. I don’t let new music in very often, and it can take me years to let in a new group or sound. (As an example, I “discovered” Queen only a few years ago, which was very satisfying.)


Anyway, I have to come to terms with the fact that this is just how my brain likes to respond to music. It means I have to take my music in very small doses. This earworm thing never bothered me when I was actually playing music regularly. Maybe my brain misses that, and this is the way it’s trying to tell me. However, physically I feel I can no longer do the instrument justice. I don’t know how it is for other instrument-playing people, but I have noticed, in my circle of friends, that the French horn is one instrument that people just seem to stop playing without a backward glance. They just get done with it and move on to other things.


Anyway, I do enjoy music, and I have made a lot of it in my day. But this earworm thing is a bit puzzling. I never had actually painful earworms till recently. It’s not a physical pain, but a psychic one. Does anyone have a similar experience to share?

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ltwaronite
ltwaronite
Dec 20, 2023

I knew you enjoyed singing, but I had no idea music was such an important part of your life! You are full of surprises! 🙂

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