Friday, October 31, 2008

Attack of the Ohrwurms

A blood-curdling tale for your Halloween pleasure—about an insidious creature that preys on us all, men & women, young & old. The creature is merciless & pervasive, & while it doesn’t actually kill, it can make folks wish they were dead, or at least unconscious, & in extreme cases it could drive them quite mad, if only temporarily. That creature could be known by its German name of ohrwurm or by the English translation “Earworm”—sounds disgusting, doesn’t it?

The creature goes by the name of chiclete de
ouvido, or “ear chewing gum” in Portuguese; it also goes by the somewhat clinical name of “cognitive itch.” When I tell you the phenomenon is also known as “stuck song syndrome,” or more colloquially, “sticky tune,” then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The other day I had to make an early morning excursion to Boise—& it was quite early morning at that. On the way home, I stopped for gas at a station in Payet
te. I’m not really sure of the time, but it was still quite dark. When I got out to gas the Subaru up, I was nearly flattened by a wave of ugly generic rock surging from speakers on all sides of me—two speakers suspended above each fuel island. Because I had to think about something, I thought about the need folks seem to have for a soundtrack to accompany their lives, such that we seem to find ourselves constantly surrounded by recorded music.

& it makes me wonder if the earworm phenomenon was as prevalent before recorded music—which has, I suspect, had a pretty profound impact
on the way us human beans interact with sound. If you listen to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, you realize that people weren’t singing & playing with much self-consciousness because they didn’t have one hundred plus years of recorded music in their heads.

Anyhoo, this earworm predilection has been studied; the one study I have a marginal, internet-sort of familiarity with was conducted by Dr. James J. Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati. Kellaris reported that 98% of people have had “stuck song syndrome” (this seems low to me). The study involved 559 students. Some of th
e findings were:

Earworms frustrate women a lot more than men.
Earworm attacks are more frequent & of longer duration for both musicians & music lovers
Neurotic people get them more often
Earworm attacks frequently last for a few hours

Some stats:

Songs with lyrics are the most prevalent earworms: 74%
Commercial Jingles are second most prevalent: 15% (this also seems low, but maybe these college kids aren’t watching too much TV, or they're smart & using the mute button a lot)
Instrumentals come in third at 11% (I’m guessing a lot of these are the musicians & music lovers)
Earworms “frequently” attack 61.5% of people (at least in Kellaris’ study).

Here are the top ten earworms from the study:

1. Other. Because everyone has her/his own especiall
y excruciating earworm
2. Chili's "Baby Back Ribs" jingle.
3. "Who Let the Dogs Out"
4. "We Will Rock You"
5. Kit-Kat candy-bar jingle ("Gimme a Break ...")

6. "Mission Impossible" theme
7. "YMCA"
8. "Whoomp, There It Is"
9. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"

10. "It's a Small World After All" (Having been to Disneyland, I’m surprised this ranks so low—a lot of folks find the Small World exhibit a virtual earworm torture chamber)

Now that’s one scary list…. But you may say the most frightening thing about the study is this simple fact: Kellaris hasn't found a cure. Well, folks, this is where the post moves away from unremitting horror & finds a bit of a silver lining in all those dark & earwormy clouds—that’s because my better half, Eberle, has found the cu

Poor Eberle—being both a musician & a composer, she really can suffer from earworms. In her case, there’s also the distinction between “good” earworms & “bad” earworms. The former occur sometimes when she’s composing & her own music gets stuck in her head, or if she’s contemplating a really interesting piece of music. The latter—well, they’re the kind we all know about, triggered by muzak or the radio, or mi
stakenly singing a pop song as a joke, or even because pieces of music often contain small snatches of other music, & invariably, a more interesting song turns into a more banal one as the earworm strikes.

But there’s hope: the cure is simple & painless & cheap. All you need to do is sing “Polly Wolly Doodle.” I’m telling you, this is more effective than taking aspirin for a headache or a hair of the dog for a hangover. In honor of this fact, Eberle co
mposed “The Wally Song,” based on “Polly Wolly Doodle”; the Alice in Wonder Band performed this, & you can hear us doing so back in ’01 at this link. The crew on that number was Kati Sheldon on vocals, Eberle on piano, Lois Fry on violin, Art Troutner on oboe, Barb Dixon on djembe & yours truly on banjo uke.

I can’t guarantee results from “The Wally Song” if you’re trying to exterminate earworms, but I do hope you enjoy it; I think it's a fun re-telling of the "Polly Wolly Doodle" story (insofar as that has a story). Otherwise, I’m just saying: “Polly Wolly Doodle” works like the proverbial charm—so I’ve provided the music for you below, j
ust in case.

By the by, a tip o'the hat to the folks at, where I got the info on the Kellaris study.

Happy Halloween, all.

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