Picture it: Nighty-night time. You pull the covers up to your chin, close your eyes and wiggle into the sheets for a long night’s nap. And then. It starts.
“I’m Slim Shady, yes I’m the real Shady, All you other Slim Shadys are just imitating, So won’t the real Slim Shady please stand up, Please stand up, please stand up?”
Egad. It’s your nemesis, the earworm, not to be confused with the sagelike earthworm, who gently burrows into the earth to create peace and goodwill throughout the plant kingdom. No, this worm takes a drill to your skull and cruelly burrows in with a musical refrain put on endless repeat.
“An earworm for me is something that gets in there without a clear stimulation,” says Ryan Bañagale, who’s director of performing arts at Colorado College and an associate professor in the music department. “If I’m listening to a song and it gets stuck in my head, I don’t call it an earworm. I would take responsibility for it. An earworm I don’t take responsibility for. It just got there somehow.”
Almost 90 percent of us experience this phenomenon weekly, according to a 2011 study. While it’s reassuring to know we’re not alone, how did these worms get in there and how do we vanquish them before we claw out our eyeballs in frustration?
Theories abound as to how a worm sneaks in. Sometimes they’re prompted by hearing a song, particularly songs that are faster and simply written, making them easier to sing, reported Harvard Health Publishing by Harvard Medical School. Earworms also might download as a result of too many thoughts elbowing for room in your head, or simply because you have a musical background and are more prone to them.
“Something usually stimulates the earworm,” says Bañagale, who’s recently been plagued by Good Humor’s new ice cream truck jingle by hip-hop Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA. “For me, it’s some kind of tempo is established in my body. I’m walking or running and that steady pulse of footsteps is the tempo. Whatever tempo it is, there’s going to be a song that matches it and it’ll get in my head.”
For Dona Zavislan, an earworm isn’t necessarily a bad thing. She recently endured multiple mental performances of the song “Familiar” by Agnes Obel.
“At first I found it comforting and compelling and I listened to it over and over,” she says. “When I noticed it occupying my mind as I tried to sleep, I knew it had taken over. I still love the song, but like a lot of things, there’s that point when it becomes too much of a good thing.”
If you are blissfully earworm-free at the moment, please skip the next two paragraphs as they could be potential triggers.
In 2016, scientists at the University of St Andrews named the top 20 worst earworms. Sorry, Queen, your name made the list three times and included “We Will Rock You.” Also mentioned: Village People’s “YMCA,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Happy” by Pharrell Williams and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.”
Then there are the tunes that plague your fellow citizens right here in the Pikes Peak region: Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The entire “Hamilton” soundtrack. “We Built This City,” by Starship. “Shake it Off,” by Taylor Swift. “Jose Cuervo” by Shelly West. Sometimes it’s simply the last song we hear.
What are the afflicted to do? Unfortunately, it’s likely a case of trial and error. What works for you might not for another. Many try listening to different music, changing location, focusing on a project or changing their physical tempo, as Bañagale does.
Others believe you must stand in the fire and succumb to the song. Chelsea Wood, a singer who works at Graner Music, has a no-fail solution that applies especially to other vocalists, but could work for you, too. If you get caught on a song, you must look up the lyrics and perform the entire song. It has to do with the way music is formed.
“Your ear wants that dominant chord. It wants that resolve,” says Wood. “The end of a song was written to give you a feeling of closure. But in the height of the chorus or a specific verse, the music is set up to keep you excited or motivated. Your chordal structure is what creates that. At the end of a song the chordal structure resolves. You’ve completed that journey.”
Springs resident Julia Bogart-Ortiz relies on a bit of folklore to escape her musical jams: “I always heard the way to get a song out of your head is to sing ‘The Girl From Ipanema.’ Even better if it’s in the voice of Elmer Fudd.”
And then there’s chewing gum. According to a 2015 study, gnawing on the rubbery stuff interferes with articulatory motor programming and reduces the number of involuntary and unwanted musical thoughts.
We’ll chew to that.
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