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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 —


Apparently you and Raymond Chen are on the same wavelength:

His post includes a link to an article that has the following recommendations for the earworm afflicted

• Try to replace it with another, perhaps less annoying song. (Beethoven's Fifth Symphony perhaps)

• Do something to distract yourself.

• Walk to a different tempo from the one in the earworm.

— eff Five, Tue, 16 Dec 2008 12:43:09 -0500 (EST)

Yeah, but notice how Raymond didn't get all annoyingly preachy. — Charles

Play this. It'll root out ABBA.

BobW, Tue, 16 Dec 2008 13:05:19 -0500 (EST)

And make me laugh as well! Thank you. — Charles

Ah, the all too common 'this ain't music' rant.

Quite understandable, but also quite flawed.

Flawed in the sense that people do not listen to music for more intellectual progression, but simply because it affects their emotions. There is nothing wrong with this, and it has been like this for ages.

I agree that the famous classical composers were geniuses with notes and chords, but this does not mean that their music is 'good' per se. It has certain qualities, many of which will never be attained by popular music. But modern day pop music keeps the pulse of the young and restless, and gives them an emotional outlet.

And some pop music is quite artistic by itself : Deep Purple, Prince, Johnny Cash and Coldplay are just a couple of examples ( I'm no expert ).

Other tunes are simply addictive like sugar, and could be qualified as good as well. Simply because they succeed in getting people to listen to them. Musicians in this category are for example : 50cent, Moby and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

Getting people to listen to your music isn't a quality by itself, but if you want to convey a message, you better do it with some catchy pop song than through a piece of classical music.

So while I have great respect for classical musicians, they have never given me the joy or solace that I get from listening to modern pop music.

However, if I would live in the US, the general radio and mall pop music would drive be bananas, since it is in a whole different league of crappiness than what we are exposed to in Europe. No offense. So in a sense I'm making the same point, from a different perspective.

KristofU, Tue, 16 Dec 2008 15:44:43 -0500 (EST)

Of course I wasn't saying "this ain't music." It certainly is music, but in the same way that cotton candy is certainly food. At least with cotton candy, however, nobody is forcing me to eat it. — Charles

Charles you need to lighten up man. Not everything has to enlighten you to be valuable.

— Thu, 18 Dec 2008 15:57:46 -0500 (EST)

> you need to lighten up man

Certainly I don't object to people listening to frivolous empty-headed music once in a while. Tchaikovsky is quite suitable for that purpose. — Charles

Whatever you do, don't look up Mark Twain's short story "Punch, Brothers, Punch". It may cure the current problem, but it's more virulent.

— a. avrashow, Fri, 19 Dec 2008 04:08:06 -0500 (EST)


My condolences on the re-infection of the ear worm. If you’re looking for another option to possibly erase the malignant melody of the mind, you may want to try a bit of Gogol Bordello. Regulars of the club scene in lower Manhattan, I’m sure they might be of help. Might I suggest their EP “East Infection” ( or my personal favorite of theirs, “Multi Kontra Culti” (

Not everything can be as profound or as esthetically appealing as Olga Kern performing Brahms variations or as Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, K622.

If misery loves company, a bit more context and understanding on what you’re experiencing may also be of help. In his most recent book, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain”, Dr. Oliver Sacks has an entire chapter dedicated to “worms”, entitled “Brainworms, Sticky Music and Catchy Tunes”.

Good luck, and with best wishes that this too may pass….

Bill Wonneberger, Fri, 26 Dec 2008 08:56:36 -0500 (EST)

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