Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ear Worms

I just can't get you out of my head...
     ~ Kylie Minogue, Coldplay, etc.

Mage Music 31: Ear Worms
Mage Music 31

A few weeks ago I couldn't get the chord progressions of Kashmir out of my head. I would wake up in the middle of the night hearing them: up scale, down scale, one phrase at a time that never led to the next, just that same one phrase over and over.

It's not just Kashmir - last week it was Stairway to Heaven.   There's been other songs too:  For instance, just thinking about the chorus for Your Time Is Gonna Come threatens to worm it into my head. Jimmy Page's opening riffs in Tea For One is another example.  Oh, there's many, many more of them.  I'm pretty prone to this phenomenon.

I think you know what I'm talking about: Ear worms.  Fortunately for me, it's most often Led Zeppelin - not, say, a fast-food chain jingle.  So I don't mind it at all… well, not much.

Ear worms? Not something that Khan has inserted in your ear (actually a Ceti eel, not a worm) for his amusement and the re-education of prisoners, but rather a bit of music that is stuck in your mind, a brief phrase or two that you have no control over.  Music you hear in your head, not in the outside world, music that you may even be surprised to discover playing and replaying in your mind, that showed up there unbidden, uncontrolled and often unappreciated and unwanted.

According to some quick research I've done, ear worms are pretty common, although some people never get them or only experience them infrequently.  At the other end of the scale, research has found that musicians seem to experience them a lot, much more often than non-musical people do.

According to Wikipedia, ear worms are common enough that they "may be distinguished from brain damage".  In case you were worried about hearing things that no one else can hear.

Out! Out damn worm!
Scientists who've looked into ear worms have a good idea what's going on in the brain and where it's happening (quite a few places at the same time it turns out, but that's a story for another day).  Science still can't tell us why it is that even one exposure to a bit of advertising jingle that you weren't even conscious you were hearing can end up repeating itself over and over and over in your head without your wanting it to, never ending until something breaks the cycle. It can be like a twitching eye - nothing you seem to do will get rid of it, and you hope it'll just go away eventually before it drives you crazy.

One of the problems with ear worms is that we recognize the pattern as a musical phrase, but there's no context and there's never a climax.  Instead of the music moving on it goes back, like a stuck record (for those who have no experience with LPs, you'll just have to use your imagination). Let's just say there's never a musical statement of conclusion, which, after the crazy-making repetition, is an integral part of the torture.

And getting rid of them?  Not so easy.  Ear worms aren't like habits, since they aren't settled or regular tendency or practices that we really do have control over that are just hard to give up.  And therein lies the problem - if you get an ear worm you don't want to hear, what can you do?

Sorry, this is not a blog about getting rid of ear worms.  You can try listening to some other compelling music (but that doesn't always work)... or just be patient.  No one has ever died from ear worms.  Gone crazy maybe....

Making lemonade
You know what Mr. Plant says about squeezing lemons.  If you get them, you don't need to complain, you instead make use of them.

Wired Magazine had an article almost two years about learning languages  using ear worms.  The idea is that ear worms are compelling and if you can hook onto that, you can learn certain things more quickly*. Results have been mixed, but that doesn't mean the concept couldn't work - give advertising agencies a few more years and they'll have it figured out.

When you've been infected by an ear worm the musical loop you are trapped in is actually resonating in deep parts of the brain that are interconnected in ways that don't occur with language and conscious, logical thought.

The primitive, "reptile mind" part of the brain doesn't have anything to do with the conscious, "logical" part of the brain.  The former has to do with survival on a very basic level, the latter on, well, thinking.  This is a Good Thing:  When the zombie pops out from behind a wall, you don't want to stop to think about it, you want some survival instincts taking over to get your butt out of there.  When panic sets in the reptile mind, the survival part of the brain, is turned on and the part of the brain that deals with conscious thought is literally turned off.  I believe if you've ever encountered a zombie (or it could be a spider, snake or an in-law), you will know just what I mean.

But here's a really interesting fact:  Although the primitive parts of the brain cannot directly connect with the parts of the brain that control logical, conscious thought, music can indirectly bring that connection about.

This is prime territory for learning and for exploiting by advertising agents.  It is also why music can be used as ritual for Magick.

When we hear music, we're also feeling it with our bodies.  It resonates with our guts and our bones and worms its way into our souls.  Add the will and desire of a Mage, and you can see how Magick will result.

There is no YouTube playlist this time.  It would just be too cruel.

More about ear worm foreign language learning:  "Listening to melodious music puts users into a relaxed state of alertness, the 'Alpha state' the ideal condition for learning. The sound patterns of melodies, with rhythmic repetitions from a mesmeric male voice who speaks the English and a native speaker for the target language, 'worm' their way deep into the memory, permanently burning into the aural cortex -- an area of the brain from which words can instantly be recalled."  Note from Mage Music:  Results may vary.


  1. I do dearly love your articles Lif:) And I need to ponder on many things you have made me wonder about. I love when I am stimulated and mystified and you did both. I am thinking the link between logic and reptile is also called the Bridge:) According to Researcher Thomas Fritz....Music, however, may bridge the cultural divide: a new study has shown that regardless of culture or previous exposure, people were accurately able to recognize three emotions in Western music - happiness, sadness and fear.I am thinking this may be a much bigger key than anyone even imagines. Except the Mage, he has always known.
    I have heard the loops over and over. Just like those 5 notes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, "Music is universal language of Mankind", Henry Wadsworth Longfellow( and I do mean Universe:)

    1. Thank you! I always appreciate knowing that what I'm writing is making a difference.

      The link between logic and repitle may be called the Bridge, but I haven't heard that term used in the literature that talks about the brain (doesn't mean it's not being used). If you've got a reference I could pursue, I'd appreciate it. I always want to learn more!

      We know that a bridge in music is a connection that bridges two different musical sounds and purposes, specifically to prepare for the return of a previous musical section. Really, a bridge is anything that connects two separate things - in the famous case of The Crunge, Robert Plant asks "Where's that confounded bridge?". The song has no internal bridge, so what Mr. Plant is asking IS the bridge between the whole song and its ending. Tricky stuff.

      I don't know a lot about music theory, though I do know that humans absorb the musical format of their culture early on. The absorbed musical format becomes, like the grammar of a person's native language, understood without having to ever have formally learned the rules - which is why musicians and those who listen to music don't have to study music theory to recognize and appreciate the patterns.

      Beneath one's cultural knowledge of language and music, however, there is a deeper structure of both, with rules so basic that they apply cross-culture and cross-time. There is so much to be said about this that I think it needs to be a whole Mage Music post of its own!

  2. I agree I would like to hear more of your thoughts. I just said that about the bridge, I dont know anything about music theory either, and I have not read anything about it being called that. Music can teach children as much as language. And music or rhythms have the power to take your conscious to another level. Like chanting in Native American rituals or drumming and even humming. This is very interesting concept and I think it needs to be discussed and studied in more detail. Thank you for a very enjoyable article:)

  3. Well darn - I was hoping you'd have some links for me!