I remember taking Psych 100 long ago as an undergrad. Many of our lessons required us to read articles from publications such as Scientific American. I recall one such article concerning eidetic memory, a phenomenon popularly known as “photographic memory”. The subject was presented with great seriousness although I couldn’t really connect with the topic.
Years later the subject came back to mind, when I was thinking about how we experience music.
There are at least two phenomena that come to mind surrounding what we hear and how our minds retain what we’ve heard.
FIRST the bad one. When a tune sticks in our head no matter what we do, it’s called an ear worm. While we may resent the musical invasion, in a real sense it’s a triumph for the composer. Many of the subjects in the symphonies of Beethoven or Mozart are just like that. Watch this clip, and wait for the punch-line, roughly two minutes into the clip: the third piece of music that might be by Salieri.
If you were writing a Broadway musical, you couldn’t do any better than to have patrons walking out of the theatre humming music from your show. If I could write a song that people felt compelled to sing, that they couldn’t get out of their heads, surely that would be an objective to shoot for. A jingle writer seeking to promote a product would hope that their song would stick in your head. The best example I can think of that is Barry Manilow’s “you deserve a break today”. This version is already 2nd generation, because the tune is embedded in a musical number, only rearing its powerful head in the final seconds of this ad.
I recall a pedagogical version of the ear-worm, a tune on PBS called “Conjunction Junction” from Schoolhouse Rock. By creating a tune that stays with the listener grammar lessons are taught.
And SPEAKING of pedagogy, it’s cool that we’re looking at how the mind works. Do we know why some songs stick in our heads? Presumably it’s something about the song that makes us sing it over and over. When I think about Mozart, Manilow and Schoolhouse Rock, they all have an organic flow, making the tunes seem inevitable. I wonder if there’s a threshold of complexity involved. Notice that we’re talking about simplicity rather than complexity. I am trying to recall dissonant & complex examples of compositional gems, dubious as to whether an ear worm is ever atonal.
It may seem like a radical thought, to speak of great music in the same terms as ear-worms, but when you think of it, some classical compositions are great precisely because they stick in your head. And while we may resent a jingle that sticks in our head, it’s another matter entirely if it’s a passage from a symphony or opera.
So maybe it’s not so bad after all.
I will write about the SECOND kind next time.