Tuesday, 5 October 2010


You know those tunes which get stuck in your head?  I get them all the time.  Thankfully, they are usually songs which I have heard recently and like, rather than advertising jingles or TV programme theme tunes.  I remember feeling quite irritated when I had ‘I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky …’ revolving in my head like a stuck record.  Clapping my hands over my ears and singing LA LA LA loudly and tunelessly didn’t seem to work, but I can’t remember now what I did to get rid of it, or whether it eventually went of its own accord.

I first heard the term ‘earworm’ a few years ago, following a discussion on the Radio Paradise website.  It seemed to fit, even if the image it brought up was a bit off-putting.  I remembered hearing something on the radio not so long ago about earworms, and thought no more about it until yesterday, when I had a head full of songs.

I was listening to Flanders and Swann’s At the Drop of a Hat at the weekend and The Gnu song stuck.  (If you haven’t heard of Flanders and Swann, then I’m sorry, we’ve just identified a hole in your education.  Please go and look them up.  Admittedly, some of their pieces were very much of their time, when HiFi and kitchen gadgets were new things, and those born in an age of CDs and microwaves might not get some of the historical and cultural references without programme notes.  But some of their work is timeless.  You can listen to The Gnu on YouTube here).

I love Flanders and Swann.  If ever there were songs made to stick in the mind, then surely some of theirs are the aural equivalent of superglue.  The combination of Flanders’ lyrics and Swann’s music and the wonderful way in which they delivered them stuck with me from childhood until I came across a boxed set of CDs and was able to listen to them properly again.  Even so, after a day of singing/thinking ‘I’m a g-nu …’ I was beginning to wonder what I would see if I looked in the mirror.  So, how to get rid of an earworm?  One way is to replace it.  So I listened to another album of Flanders and Swann’s, At the Drop of Another Hat.  That did it.  The Gnu was replaced by The Gas Man Cometh and its repeating refrain ‘it all makes work for the working man to do’.  I was talking to a builder friend at the time and he was talking about how one job leads to another.

All this led me to remember the radio comments about a project on earworms, so I looked it up.  Goldsmiths University is running the Earworm Project and you can help their research by filling in their questionnaire about your earworms.  So I did, noting with interest the psych profile questions investigating the links to obsessive-compulsive behaviour, and feeling impatient that they only asked about two earworms, a recurrent and a recent.  But I found I could list as many as I liked using the earworms short form in conjunction with Radio 6.  It occurred to me that perhaps earworms triggered by events, habits or discussions may in some way form a soundtrack for our daily lives.

The research project might eventually help those who find their earworms disturbing, making it difficult for them to concentrate or seeming like they’re hearing voices.  Fortunately, most of my earworms are songs or music I like and if they switch themselves on and hang around for a bit, it’s no big deal.  But I guess I’d better stop writing and go do something more productive.  I’ll just go put some music on first.

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