Well read-head: I’ve got worms
There’s nothing wrong with the Beach Boys per se. The album “Pet Sounds” routinely shows up on best-of-all-time lists. But I’m feeling a bit less fondly towards them after recently having the chorus of “Help Me Rhonda” stuck in my head on a loop. It reappeared several days in a row.
This experience is called an earworm. Germans first came up with the term ohrwurm to describe the musical itch that apparently affects almost everyone at some stage or another. Research into earworms has found that virtually any piece of music can become one. Most people have a particular song of their own that they find uniquely irritating. But more generally, there are factors that make certain songs more likely to become earworms than others.
One of the world’s authorities on earworms is Professor James Kellaris, a marketing and music expert at the University of Cincinnati.
In a 2003 research paper, entitled ‘Dissecting Earworms’, Kellaris examined what makes particular songs sticky.
Unsurprisingly, the first two factors are simplicity and repetition (‘Help Me Rhonda’ is a flawless example, as it’s not only simple, but both musically and lyrically repetitive). A slightly more interesting factoid is that an unexpected twist in a song can also make it more earwormish. For example, songs with a 5/4 time signature (five beats to a bar instead of the more standard four or three) make common earworms – think ‘Take Five’ or the ‘Mission Impossible’ theme.
Kellaris surveyed a group of people to find the most common earworms (some are American television advertisements with which you might be unfamiliar). Think twice before you read the list because most of the songs are highly infectious …
1. Other. Everyone has his or her own worst 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
8. “Whoomp, There It Is”
9. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
10. “It’s a Small World After All”
So how do you get rid of earworm? There’s a theory that singing the song through to its end and breaking the loops helps. Unproven. What about distracting yourself? Not true. In fact, two British researchers from the University of Reading have found that the best treatment for earworms is actually to do nothing. They found that on average, people who tried to distract themselves found that the earworm bored down for forty minutes. People who did nothing found it lasted an average 22 minutes.
It may seem eccentric to devote a career to studying earworms. But the reality is that music plays an enormous role in marketing and a sticky jingle can raise a product’s profile enormously. I can still sing from start to finish several jingles from my childhood. The one that’s most embedded is the “You Deserve a Break Today” McDonalds ad that ran in Australia between 1980 and 1984. Check out this early prototype for the campaign from the 1970s: Who would have thought the chief selling point for McDonalds was cleanliness?
Here are this fortnight’s ten interesting things to read, watch or listen to, with a bit of a musical theme:
1. Here’s some information on James Kellaris’s research at the University of Cincinnati and also on the University of Reading’s earworm study (I asked for permission to reproduce their entire paper online but it wasn’t granted).
2. Do you remember the Christian Television Association ads from when you were a kid? ‘Hello My God’ was a shocking earworm for me. And it reminds me of that other inexplicably bizarre Christian TV ad ‘Let’s Wrap Up the Church!’ for which I unfortunately cannot find a link.
3. The Beatles crossed with juggling - what’s to not love? Seriously, this is pretty amazing – imagine the performance anxiety.
4. A pentatonic scale has five notes, instead of the standard seven. Allow Bobby McFerrin to demonstrate in a very cool way.
5. Everyone knows Bobby McFerrin from “Don’t Worry Be Happy”. But if that’s all you know of him, you’re missing out. Watch him mix it up with the legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
6. Speaking of Yo-Yo Ma, he was one of the musicians who played at Barack Obama’s inauguration. I personally thought this piece of music was one of the most dismal things I’ve ever heard. It was written by John Williams, who The Washington Post believes should stick with what he know best – stirring film scores.
7. In a performance by Steely Dan, at the 2.53 mark, two musicians have a musical “fight”. It’s very, very skilfully done.
8. Stars from the New York City ballet have taken to twitter. Is it good to get behind the performance or does it destroy the magic?
9. Jonathan Raban attended a tea party convention and wrote a very engaging account of it for the New York Review of Books.
10. Celebrity interviews can be very difficult to do well. The problem is that they’ve already been asked just about everything before. Celebrities also do a lot of interviews so they can seem bored and disengaged. This interview in Vanity Fair with John Cusack is a great example of how to warm up a celebrity. The reporter’s done a great job in getting Cusack to relax and have fun.
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