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The anatomy of an earworm


earworm

This was how my day progressed yesterday. It was a Sunday, so I was at home. I woke up at 6.45 a.m., with folk-rock legend Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ spinning in my brain. I don’t know why. I went to the washroom, and the mind switched to Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Yeh Zindagi Usi Ki Hai’. Not the main lines, but only that classic ‘Alvida’ refrain. I tried to sleep more, but the second antara of the AR Rahman-Udit Narayan hit ‘Ae Ajnabi’ haunted me. Finally, I caught an hour’s sleep after thinking of Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik’. Imagine ‘Night Music’ early in the morning.

I woke up again at 9 a.m. with ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh’s ‘Baat Niklegi Toh Phir Door’ in my head. Never understood why this particular song, which I last heard in December 2015. Suddenly, over newspapers and breakfast, Hindi film music director Amit Trivedi’s ‘Manmarziyan’ and jazz saxophonist Stan Getz’s ‘Manha Da Carnaval’ invaded my thoughts. There were two other songs which I totally forget.

Over lunch, it was the Rolling Stones hit ‘Sympathy For The Devil’. Maybe it was because I had a bad experience with somebody last week. At tea-time, it was rock band Jethro Tull’s ‘Cup Of Wonder’. On my evening walk, I crossed a temple, prayed and realised I was humming Hindustani classical maestro Pandit Jasraj’s ‘Ja Ja Re Apni Mandirwa’. No clue what song played in my ears while sleeping, but this morning, I opened my eyes to blues legend’s BB King’s ‘The Thrill Is Gone’. What a tragic line to begin a day.

HOW often have you woken up and found yourself humming Dylan, an old Lata Mangeshkar classic or some new Bollywood hit? Or spent your evening humming anything from Kishore Kumar and Arijit Singh to ‘Sheila Ki Jawaani’ or western classical composer Maurice Ravel’s ‘Bolero”? ‘The tune has stayed in your mind for a few hours and vanished, before another ditty replaces it. And the funny thing is you have absolutely no clue how it has entered your mindspace.

The ‘stuck song syndrome’, commonly known as the ‘earworm’, is one of the most common conditions many listeners face. Over informal chats, I have often heard this subject being discussed, but not enough is known about it. Some research has been done, but read only by the researchers, their faculties, students and families, and crazy people like me. Let’s see what they said.

The word earworm comes from the German ohrwurm. In his book ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’, cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin points out that they occur when neural circuits representing a song get stuck in playback mode. “It’s not the entire song, but only a small section,” he says.

Earworms have existed for years. In his 1876 short story ‘A Literary Nightmare’, Mark Twain talked of a jingle getting stuck in his head and disturbing his concentration so much that he passed it on to someone else. The term ‘earworm’ didn’t exist then, and was in fact first used in Desmond Bagley’s 1978 novel ‘Flyaway’.

Neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks, author of the popular book ‘Musicophilia’, says that today, people change earworms with greater frequency than those from the earlier generations. He attributes this to that fact that a wider range of music is accessible today.

A fairly elaborate study is found in music psychologist Victoria Williamson’s ‘You Are The Music’. In a short five-page section of a chapter, she comes up with three interesting facts.

First, earworms are not always annoying. She points out: “I ask people how they try to control or cure their earworms. I have a sizeable number of responses that say – Why would I want to control my earworms? They don’t bother me and sometimes keep me company.”

Secondly, Williamson believes earworms are not necessarily pop songs or jingles. She says people get them even in classical music, jazz and new age music. Of course, most mentally listen to melodic, vocal and simple tunes.
Her third point is that contrary to popular belief, musicians do not get them more often. “People who enjoy music every day, in particular those who like to sing along, report the most habitual and recurring earworms,” she explains. Even among musicians, those with an experience of over 15 years tend to get fewer earworms than the younger artistes.

What triggers earworms? Very often, the person may not even have heard that song in days or weeks.. Williamson talks of this case where Michael Jackson’s ‘PYT’ was stuck in a young lady’s head, even though she hadn’t heard it for a long time. The reason: she had seen the letters ‘PYT’ on someone’s car number plate.

Finally, Williamson says earworms are also linked to mood. My own inference would be that if you are euphoric or ecstatic, it may be RD Burman’s ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba’ or Boney M’s ‘Daddy Cool’. If sadly nostalgic, it may be Mukesh’s ‘Jaane Kahan Gaye Woh Din’ or the Beatles hit ‘Yesterday’. The good thing, the music psychologist says, is that they can change with your mental condition. She definitely has a point in the larger sense of her research but my mind works differently. Let me tell you why.

As I mentioned before, I woke up to BB King’s ‘The Thrill Is Gone’. It’s Monday, so had to rush to work. Bluesman T-Bone Walker’s ‘Call It Stormy Monday’ took over. While getting ready, my earworm switched to Mohammed Rafi’s ‘Din Dhal Jaaye’. Heard the radio on the way, and the new Hindi film hit ‘Soch Na Sake’ from ‘Airlift’ did a 30-minute headbang. I switched FM stations, and reached office with popular group Maroon 5’s ‘Sugar’ while meeting the boss. Well, ‘Sugar’ and ‘Boss’ just don’t connect.

At work, a friend suddenly messaged: “Remember the name of that tune that Carnatic singer Mahesh Vinayakram sang at Tata Theatre some 10 years ago?” He tried humming it, and I just couldn’t eat my lunch properly. My current earworm is a particular line from one of my favourite Lata Mangeshkar songs. It goes: “Meri mohabbat mein taaseer hai.. aa aa aa aa.. taaahseer hai.. taaahseeeeeer hai.. Toh kheench ke mere paas aaoge tum.. Jhink chik chik chik jhink…”

Obviously, my own earworms have no link with my moods. They behave differently from whatever has been researched, but then I may be a weirdo. Whatever, I like them. The good thing is that there is no copyright over them, and one doesn’t have to seek anybody’s permission, pay any fees to mentally hum them or even shell out huge sums to have the artiste’s image in your mind’s eye. It’s freedom of thought, and right to musical expression, after all. And it comes absolutely free of cost.

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