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That broken record in your head


How often have you woken up and found yourself humming the latest Bollywood hit song, an old Lata Mangeshkar classic or some instrumental tune by Kenny G? The tune has stayed in your mind for a few hours and vanished, before another ditty replaced it.

For instance, I woke up on Sunday at 7 a.m. with Jagjit Singh’s ‘ Baat Niklegi Toh Door ’ in my head. Never knew why this particular song, which I last heard in December 2015. But I sort of knew the reason.

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 say.

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 , said that today, people change earworms with greater frequency than those from the earlier generations. He attributes this to the accessibility to a wider range of music.

A fairly elaborate study is found in Victoria Williamson’s book, You are the Music . In a short chapter, she comes up with three interesting facts. First, earworms are not always annoying. She says: “I ask people how they try to control or cure their earworms. I have a sizable 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 says. 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 writes about how Michael Jackson’s ‘P.Y.T.’ 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, earworms are also linked to moods. If you are euphoric or ecstatic, it may be ‘ Mehbooba Mehbooba ’. If you are sadly nostalgic, it may be ‘ Jaane Kahan Gaye Woh Din’ . The good thing is they can change with your mood.

My current earworm is a 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 ...”

The author is a freelance music writer

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 7:30:02 AM |

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