Charles Petzold

Re-Infection with Recurrent Ear Worm

December 16, 2008
New York, N.Y.

I've been re-invected by an extremely nasty ear worm. It has gotten inside my head and plays in a continuous loop. This particular strain of ear worm has been mostly dormant for several months, ever since the movie based on a musical based on a song based on an Italian expression of surprise arrived in theatres and then left — I hesitate to mention the title because that alone is capable of touching off a vicious outbreak that can last for hours — but now the DVD has been released, and again the culture is awash with that song and several others from the same source.

I wouldn't complain if I had brought this on myself. But I have never sought out this music. It has instead oozed out of the environment into my ears. Without my permission, it has attacked my central nervous system and burrowed deep into my brain, stealing essential neurons to forever preserve the memory of those silly lyrics and insipid tunes.

Of course there's no legal recourse. If instead of playing music, a quartet of Swedes were following me around on the streets and knocking me on the back of my head, I could probably find a way to make them stop. Even if they had no physical contact with me but were instead flashing images in my eyes of apple-cheeked adolescents joyously dancing with arms waving above their empty heads, I might be able to make a case for legal restraint.

But music falls into a whole other category. Apparently there's nothing you can do to prevent insidiously tuneful music from leaking out of speakers located in public places, or interrupting otherwise innocent television programs.

I guess what bothers me most is that I'm not learning anything new from this music. Anything that could possibly be known about these songs was totally assimilated the first time they were ever heard, even before the songs had concluded. Repeat performances convery nothing new, only the placental comfort of a security blanket. With each replay, the brain dies a little more.

You would think that with all the music pumped into the aural environment these days, people would have an increased knowledge of a wider range of musical forms and ideas. But this is not the case. The massively destructive commercialization of music has required that it be immediately accessible and persistent. There is no room for hesitation or doubt. In the commercial marketplace, the ear worm is the ultimate sign of success.

And thus, few people these days even understand the concept that good music might be deliberately lacking in toe-tappable beats or hummable tunes, that it might be "challenging" or "difficult" or even "unlistenable" on first encounter, and that maybe a little effort might be required, and that this work might have a delayed pay-off of gratification.

To quote the concluding line of another famous musical ear worm from four decades back — this one based on characters from a well-known Victorian children's book —