Sunday, February 17, 2013

Ode on an Earworm

Kansas in their heyday
Late in the afternoon yesterday I realized that, for no readily apparent reason, I had for hours been humming Carry on Wayward Son by Kansas (contrary to what you might think, the word "My" does not appear in the title). Not the whole song, either: just the melody of the verses and not so much that of the more famous chorus. It was lodged in my brain so deeply I don't think a full frontal lobotomy could have excised it. It was such a bizarre choice of music—not that any earworm can ever truly be a "choice"—to be stuck in my head that I turned it into a sort of "Twenty Questions" with Sarah to see if she could guess what song was tormenting me. (She could not.) It wasn't until much later last night, after we had returned home from watching our friends' daughter's ringette game in Richmond Hill, that I found myself sitting at the computer, playing a recently downloaded game (Bejewelled 3) from Big Fish Games, when suddenly the light went on. The game has one of those looping, shifting kinds of electronic soundtracks that play in the background, the kind where the music is repetitive but not too repetitive so it doesn't become annoying. At one point I started whistling along with a sixteen-bar phrase that seemed to pop up every several minutes and it struck me that what I was whistling guessed it: Stairway to Heaven. Ha ha! No, of course it was the opening verse of Carry on..., for even though that wasn't the exact song playing behind the game, eight of the sixteen bars were close enough that they put the whole My Sweet Lord/He's So Fine plagiarism case to shame. Once I had solved the "mystery" of why the song was stuck in my noodle, of course the spell was broken and I immediately stopped humming it to myself. Ha ha, again! As you can imagine, it's still rattling around in there today. I can't remember what time I ate lunch, but I know all the words and syncopated rhythm changes to that song inherently. There really should be a way to harness that power for good and not for evil.

Elton and Kiki
If you are old enough to remember 1976 and spent even an hour near a radio in North America that year you will no doubt recall the Elton John & Kiki Dee duet, Don't Go Breaking My Heart. This was in Sir Elton's "Aliens Ate My Brain" period and was a pile of unmitigated pap; sadly, however, it was as unavoidable as it was insipid. (If, as you are reading this, you find yourself blurting out, "Hey! I liked that song!", then I apologize. Not for my description, mind you: I'm sorry you liked that song enough to be offended thirty-seven years later.) As rough as it was having to hear that tune blaring out across the airwaves between six and one bajillion times each and every day, I believe I had it even rougher than most. Possessing as I did a fair amount of musical acuity (not perfect pitch, per se, but not far off), I noticed the striking similarity in tone, timbre and pitch between the very first note (played on the electric piano) of the pop hit and Ma Bell's dial tone. (This is not to say that they were an exact match, but close enough that they became forever intertwined in my mind.) Long after the song ceased to be a going concern on the Top 40 stations of Toronto, it got stuck in my head each and every time I picked up a phone to call someone. As you may recall, in those days one couldn't punch in the number before lifting the receiver—or pressing "talk"—so it became a very real problem for me. I eventually became fast enough with my fingers that I was able to pick up the handset and punch in at least the first number of the call I was making before the dial tone hit my ears; at the very least, the sound of the touch-tone muddied the hum of the dial tone enough so that it didn't cause me undue pain and suffering. It didn't always work, but it was better than nothing. I am in no way exaggerating when I tell you that this went on nearly into the '80s; it became almost a phobia for me and I wonder if this particular stress trigger is the root of my reluctance to call people on the phone even to this day!

In case you don't know the song—or need a refresher—here is a link to just the audio (you really only need to listen to the opening note). I didn't link to the video because I didn't see any reason to traumatize you all with the knighted one's hideous plaid jacket—once you've seen it you can't unsee it. You can thank me later. (Ironic side-note: both of the songs I have mentioned here are from the same year. There's probably a deeper connection there, but I am reluctant to attempt to uncover it.)

And here, for easy reference, is the sound of a dial tone:

Eric Cartman: keeping it real on the road
In an early (season two) episode of South Park, Eric Cartman is on a road trip with Kyle and Stan to see his grandmother. At some point during the trip Cartman lets it be known that he can't hear anyone sing the opening lines of Come Sail Away by Styx without becoming possessed by the overpowering urge to finish the song himself. Of course, the other boys respect this and just leave it at that. Ha ha, I did it again! No, Kyle immediately sings, "I'm sailing away...." and leaves it hanging. He has to do it a second time before Cartman's willpower evaporates and he proceeds to desperately tear through the rest of the tune, which he does in about twenty seconds flat. I don't think that qualifies as an earworm—more like some bizarre form of OCD—but he may well be on to something. If I can somehow convince myself to hum anything stuck in my own head at 32X the normal speed I might be able to purge myself of future earworms in a fraction of the time they ordinarily take. The problem with that, though, is a simple one: unlike what I hear from many other people, most of the time a song gets stuck in my head it's usually one I'm fond of (Elton and Kiki notwithstanding) or which has a hook that is quite pleasant (unlike, say, the "hooks" of the entire Jason Mraz and Colbie Caillat catalogues). I'm not generally anxious to get rid of them too quickly—at least not before I have sucked the life right out of them—unless they are horrifically bad; however, the bad ones I don't know well enough to be able to whip through them at high speeds as it's usually only a four- or eight-bar hook that's trapped in my inner vortex. Sarah has a different approach: her friend Jen taught her a long time ago to sing If I Were a Rich Man to herself whenever she has a stubborn earworm that just won't quit and it will quickly solve the problem. Sarah claims that "all of the 'budda-budda-budda-bums' in the lyrics just drives the other song right out of my head". She absolutely swears by that method, so if you want to give it a try then please feel free. And do let me or Sarah know how it works out for you.

So....any particularly memorable earworm experiences you would like to share? Any other methods for regaining your sanity after an especially stubborn hook gets lodged in your brain? Want to take me to task for hating on Don't Go Breaking My Heart or for planting one of these tunes in your head with this piece? (If it's any consolation, the Kansas song is now gone...but Styx has replaced it.) Let me know in the comment area!

And just FYI: Come Sail Away is from 1977. There must be something about that era. Perhaps a future blog piece awaits.

1 comment:

  1. Quite frankly, I think they are only earworms if you don't like the song, or find it annoying, etc. Luckily, I find that earbuds are the best antidote for earworms. Then I can play music I love and get it in my head enough that I stop thinking of the banal stuff with the hooks.


I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

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