I’ve been MIA here at POM over the last couple of months due to an unusually heavy schedule of business travel. A couple of Saturdays back, on the final day of my last trip, I woke up feeling great. I had slept well (rare for me in a hotel), the constant rain of the previous few days had let up and the sky was bright blue. Above all, once I completed my morning commitment, I would be on my way home. I was walking on sunshine …
I ran down to the car to fetch my dress shoes. It was a short walk from my room, down the elevator, through the lobby, and over to my car in the parking lot. By the time I got to my car, I was in a blue funk. “Dear Lord!” I thought, “What just happened?”
I paused for a moment to analyze this sudden emotional turn. Soon enough I determined the reason: the clue was the echo in my mind’s ear of the song that has been playing in the lobby.
Ah, but I left something out. My final stop was in Nashville, Tennessee. The Marriott wasn’t playing any old elevator music. It was full-on contemporary country music. Which I don’t listen to, personally. I enjoy some of the old Western music: Hank Williams, Sr., Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and such. But anything coming out of Nashville today is crap to my ears.
So, I didn’t know or recognize the song that was playing in the lobby during the twenty seconds it took me to pass from the elevator to the front door. I couldn’t tell you the artist or the title, I couldn’t recite a single bit of the lyrics or hum one snatch of the tune. I can say with certainty that I never heard it before, and so it couldn’t be pushing any buttons of nostalgia in me, like certain songs might do.
But there it was. My brief exposure to this song turned a great mood into a depressed one like a switch had flipped in my soul.
Perhaps I should mention more about my personal habits. I refuse to live my life with a soundtrack. I own no iPod. I do not turn on the car radio by reflex. In hotel rooms, I never flip on the television. I don’t listen to music on my phone. I enjoy silence, and in hotels I reinforce it by wearing earplugs while I sleep.
In auditory terms, then, on that Saturday morning, it was like I had been fasting. You know how it is when people get tested for food allergies? They have a very restricted diet for a while before the potential allergen is introduced to monitor the reaction. Well, that’s how my mind was before I heard that enervating song. I was in a state of aural fasting, and so the allergic reaction was strong and distinct.
Curiously, once I had identified the culprit behind my precipitous funk, it soon lifted. Bringing the matter to my conscious mind gave me a sense of control, perhaps. I was soon enough walking on sunshine again. But I wondered … What if I hadn’t realized what the song did to me? How long then would the effects have lasted? And if I were a “music all the time” kind of person (like so people many these days), and it had been just one more song among many that I had listened that morning, would I have been able to pick out that one baleful melody as the problem? And also … What if I voluntarily exposed my mind to that song and others like it, day in and day out, as some do? Would I build up an “immunity” to its effects on me? Or would it cause a chronic, low-level dysthymia?
I had to pass through that Nashville hotel lobby twice more before checking out. Different songs were playing by then, and I noticed no emotional effects from them. But given the amount of “music” we have piped at us everywhere we go, it got me thinking … what is all this structured sound doing to us?
Of Echoes and Earworms
I can’t tell you anything more about the song that affected me so deeply except that it was sung by a throaty female belting out an up-tempo “somebody-done-somebody-wrong” song. Whether her complaint was a straying beau or a rusting pickup truck, I didn’t catch. As I said above, the only thing that snagged on my soul was some echo—not quite an earworm, but not entirely different, either (more on echoes later).
This experience started me looking into the related phenomenon of earworms. We have all had times when a snatch of song kept playing over and over again in our mind’s ear. Sometimes it is enjoyable, but mostly it is as annoying as hell. Different people catch different tunes as their own personal earworms. But according to published research, there are certain commonalities among earwormy tunes:
- relatively quick tempo
- interval leaps that are unusual for their size (as in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) or for being out-of-the-ordinary melodically (as when Tony sings Maria’s name in West Side Story)
- an above-average number of repeated notes (as in Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”)
- certain rise-and-fall contours in the melody (as in the Alphabet Song, where the first phrase rises and the second phrase falls)
- series of longer notes separated by short intervals (as in the stepwise melody of ABBA’s “Waterloo”)
- repetitive or distinctive rhythmic pattern (Queen’s “We Will Rock You”)
In my own experience, a few other factors come into play:
- lyrics that tease at one’s comprehension with indistinct enunciation or nonsense syllables (“Bad Romance” again)
- lyrics that tax the memory with an above-average number of verses (as in Don McLean’s “American Pie” or Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”)
- deviations from the established rhythmic patterns of the song (“I’ll Know” from Guys and Dolls)
Or to express the matter more metaphorically, earwormy songs contain some sort of “gristle” that the mind must keep chewing on in order to digest … or some kind of riddle to resolve—melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, or verbally. In fact, some studies suggest that the best aural anthelminthic (worm-killer) is to work a moderately challenging puzzle of some sort: Sudoku, crossword, anagram, or such. I find that looking up the lyrics helps whenever my brain is poking around for the words like a tongue exploring the gap of a lost tooth.
(Someone somewhere told me that the fastest cure for an earworm is to think of Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good,” which in fact works for me. But for others, that song is itself a potential earworm. I rarely find instrumental-only pieces to be earwormy, although recently I came down with a mostly pleasant infestation of Henry Mancini’s “A Shot in the Dark”. I don’t recall ever having an earworm from a song in a foreign language that I have not studied, but I have had earworms from songs in languages in which I have some facility.)
One study found the following pop songs to be the most common earworms (in order):
“Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga
“Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” by Kylie Minogue
“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey
“Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye
“Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5
“California Gurls” by Katy Perry
“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
“Alejandro” by Lady Gaga
“Poker Face” by Lady Gaga
Other research (for a Heinz advertising campaign!) out of Great Britain produced a somewhat different list, based on a quasi-mathematical formula of which tunes should cause otohelminthiasis (my coinage for “earworm disease”):
“We Will Rock You” by Queen
“Happy” by Pharrell Williams
“We Are The Champions” by Queen
“I”m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers
“YMCA” by The Village People
“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
“The Final Countdown” by Europe
“Livin” On A Prayer” by Bon Jovi
“Jingle Bells” by James Pierpoint
“Who Let The Dogs Out?” by Baha Men
“Gangnam Style” by Psy
“Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley
“Don”t Stop Believin” by Journey
“Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson
“Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift
“Beat It” by Michael Jackson
“Ruby” by Kaiser Chiefs
“The Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show
“All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor
“Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club
If you have been a regular reader of Mark Tokarski’s work here at Piece of Mindful, your ears just perked up, I think. On these lists you will recognize a number of recording artists who, for independent reasons, are suspected of being projects of Intelligence, promoted far above their actual talent grade to an artificial level of popularity. In a future installment, I will try to add another name to that list.
What I hope to offer with this multi-part essay is some insight into what the promoters try to accomplish by putting these particular artists forward in popular culture. But first, a more philosophical look at earworms and echoes …
The Pythagorean Theory
Earlier, I called my depressing stimulus at the Nashville hotel an “echo.” I have had prior experiences like that. In fact, I have one every year—when I attend the annual performance of a composition of what some would call “modal music.” The effect, however, is the opposite of the Nashville echo. Although only a small part of the composition is in the Hypolydian mode (or something akin to it), that portion is the high point of the piece. For the rest of the evening—and even as I sleep—that scale and its shimmering overtones linger in memory in a beautiful and calming way. If, that is, the soloist manages well the microtonal adjustments between the Hypolydian mode and the Western major scale. If not, an echo still remains, but it is an irritating one. What persists, for good or bad, is not a snatch of melody, not any single phrase or verse, but simply the harmonic gestalt. What persists is not an earworm in the familiar sense, but an resonating echo, which word I use with a nod to the ancient Greek word for a musical mode, ἦχος, from which we get our word “echo.”
What I experienced, the ancient Greeks long ago knew —that different musical modes produce different effects on the psyche. (When I use the word “mode” I mean not only the scale of notes, but also a traditional set melodic formulae, harmonizations, and cadences that go with each of those scales.) The philosopher Pythagoras had a rather elaborate conception of the psychological influence of the modes, based on his core belief that numbers were the basic building blocks and mathematics the basic laws of the universe. Pythagoras’ musical scales were constructed with great attention to the precise proportionalities for each note of the scale. It is thought that his speculations about harmonics were part and parcel of his larger theory of celestial mechanics and the “music of the spheres” that vibrates throughout the cosmos.
But man is a microcosm, the ancient Greeks believed, and what was true of the ever-ascending spheres above us was also true of the ever-descending spheres within us. Therefore, Pythagoras used melodies as medicine. The perfect proportions of a well-tuned scale had the power to correct imbalances of mind and body, he thought. His biographer, Iamblichus, tells the famous story of how Pythagoras musically prevented a murder:
“Among the deeds of Pythagoras likewise, it is said, that once through the spondaic song of a piper, he extinguished the rage of a Tauromenian lad, who had been feasting by night, and intended to burn the vestibule of his mistress, in consequence of seeing her coming from the house of his rival. For the lad was inflamed and excited [to this rash attempt] by a Phrygian song; which however Pythagoras most rapidly suppressed.
But Pythagoras as he was astronomizing, happened to meet with the Phrygian piper at an unseasonable time of night, and persuaded him to change his Phrygian for a spondaic song; through which the fury of the lad being immediately repressed, he returned home in an orderly manner, though a little before this, he could not be in the least restrained, nor would in short, bear any admonition; and even stupidly insulted Pythagoras.”
William Congreve aptly wrote: “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” One need not buy into Pythagoras’ philosophy to appreciate his insight into the immense effect of music on the psyche. Many modern studies have documented its healing power. But there is another side to that coin which modern psychologists seem not to study. If one kind of music has the power to calm and heal, another kind should have the power to inflame and disquiet, as Pythagoras observed. If melody of one sort has the potential to liberate the mind from its passions, melody of another sort should have the potential to enervate and enslave the mind to bad habits, base desires, and harmful cravings … and perhaps even to complacency, compliance, and conformity.
* * *
Submitted for your approval … a musician recognizes the psychological power of certain musical modes, and goes on to discover the formula for creating earworms. Give this musician an agenda and a platform for exposing large audiences to his works, and you have an artist with the ability to mold the minds of a generation in a subtle, perhaps unconscious, but potentially devastating way.
Twilight Zone episode? Nope: reality. “Nicolas Slonimsky, a composer and musicologist, was deliberately inventing musical forms or phrases that could hook the mind and force it to mimicry and repetition, as early as the 1920s.” (Per Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia, p. 42) Slonimsky’s magnum opus was the Thesaurus of Musical Scales and Melodic Patterns. If you ever wondered why the blues of John Coltrane were so, well, blues-inducing, it was because he studied Slonimsky’s text like it was the lost fifth Gospel. Slonimksy’s textbook is data without explanation: presumably there is some oral Mishnah available to decode the written Torah of his Thesaurus.
What’s that, dear reader? Not buying it—this idea that human beings can be subtly manipulated by exposure to certain scales and harmonies–that it’s not just the lyrics that have a corrosive effect psychologically, but even the tunes themselves?
Let me ask then … about all that Christmas music you’ve been hearing in the stores since Halloween. Why do stores do that to us and to their employees? Because it has been proven to get us to spend more money. Why do stores pay each month for a music service to pipe in that bland instrumental pop-music shite? Because it makes us spend more time in the store, and more time equates to more purchases. It’s a mere step—or maybe just a half-step—from recognizing that effect to seeing the subtle but pervasive influence of the great ocean of music that we are all awash in everywhere all the time. In the next installment, I hope to analyze some of the mechanics of the musical prison that encloses our society, bringing together disparate conspiracy theories (of musicians themselves, turns out).
Until then … Dave Barry used to say that the best way to get rid of an earworm was to give it to someone else. In that spirit, please give ear to the following song which has been plaguing my soul for the last two weeks. Review the commonalities of earworms listed above and then listen a couple of times to how Bobby Darin practically weaponizes a forgettable little ditty from a no-account Broadway musical. Enjoy!
And Merry Christmas to all them what observes the day!