Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Itchy Brain

Twice this week, I had a song I couldn't get out of my mind. On Monday, I started humming the Mamas & The Papas, "Monday, Monday," and that's all well and good—it's a terrific, classic song, but the fact that I found myself still singing the same song on Wednesday? That's just not normal.

Finally, I got Monday, Monday out of my head--it was 1 PM on Wednesday--and then for no reason whatsoever, I got a really vile sucky song stuck in my head, looping and looping until I thought I'd gone clear out of my mind.

I mentioned it to Dov, my husband, and he said, "Don't you dare hum it," which made things even worse.That song got louder and louder and at last, I could suppress the urge no more and burst into song,

"OoowI think I love you.
OOOOHhhhhhhhhhhhhWI think I LOVE YOU!
So what am I so afraid of?
I'm afraid that I'm not sure of…"

Dov said, "That does it," came over to me, picked up my tonic water with a wedge of lime which I had just so lovingly prepared for myself and drank half of it down in one gulp.

But really, why is that horrible song stuck in my head? I can picture David Cassidy's feathered do swinging around his face, grooving in his tight shiny polyester bell bottoms and shirt unbuttoned down to there, undulating his uvula to underscore the lines:

"I'm sleeping,
And right in the middle of a good dream…"

EEK. Make it stop!!!

So, I did what I always do when there's something I don't know or understand. I hie myself over to Google. I entered the following term: "Why can't I get that song out of my head?"

I was thinking: Some psychologist must have thought about using this as a topic for getting a research grant. Sure enough, there it was: "'Brain itch' keeps songs in the head."

A Professor James Kellaris of the University of Cincinatti College of Business Administration had discovered that certain songs get stuck in our heads because they create something he calls a "brain itch." The itch can only be scratched by repeating the same tune again and again. There's even a German term for this kind of song. It's called an "ohrwurm," an earworm.

The type of song that tends to repeat in your mind has an upbeat melody and repetitious lyrics that quiver on the line between infectious and irritating. Professor Kellaris explains that the cognitive itch is caused by properties in compositions that can be likened to histamines for the brain. Kellaris mentioned two songs that can have this effect: the Baha Men's, "Who Let the Dogs Out," and the Village People's "YMCA."

"The only way to scratch a cognitive itch is to repeat the offending melody in our minds," says Kellaris. "Across surveys I found that from 97% to 99% of the population is susceptible to earworms at some time."

Jingle writers are known to use these repetitive "hooks" in their music to wedge an advertising message into the malleable flesh of unwitting brains. One such writer, Chris Smith, mentioned that some of the greatest musicians suffered from such earworms. Smith relates that Mozart's children would infuriate him by playing bits and pieces of tunes or scales on the piano that was situated below his rooms, but leave off the endings. "He would have to rush down and complete the scale because he couldn't bear to listen to an unresolved scale," says Smith.

Mozart understood that the only cure for an earworm is completing the song by singing or playing it through to its end. I guess that in my case, this means I will have to suffer through a YouTube performance of the Partridge Family singing, "I think I Love You." God save me.


  1. I love the Prtridge Family, and I had posters of David and Shawn on my walls. I was so in looooove with Shawn....

  2. Merav, I'm embarrassed to admit that back in the day, I had a thing for David and thought Susan Dey was the most gorgeous creature on earth!