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Fishin’ Blues Part 3: Ear Worms

May 24, 2010

Corn earworm on unripe cottonboll from the Agricultural Research Service

“Nobody likes me,
Everybody hates me,
Guess I’ll go eat worms”

–Children’s song

The earworm is a special sub category of the hook. While a good hook makes you long to hear the song again, an earworm compels it, crawling into your ear and making the song play all by itself in your head long after you’ve stopped listening. Some ear worms are benign. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” has a way of sticking around, but what else would you rather listen to? Same with the tune from Beethoven’s 9th – perhaps the most elegant earworm ever penned.

The other day I was fondly recalling the Philly Sound of the ‘70s, bright music in dark times. I hadn’t heard that stuff in years, and, curious, downloaded some albums, starting with the best of the Stylistics. In the days since I listened to this album two earworms have alternated in my head – “You Are Everything,” and  “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” which plays in here as I write. I don’t mind it.

But there’s another species of catchy tune, which I do mind, and I bet you do too.  The pernicious earworm. You hate the song, yet it keeps playing in your head. Finally it goes away, but it’s still in your ear, just hibernating.  Hear a snippet of that song and it wakes right up. And each time you hear it, it drills deeper, plays longer.  Finally you don’t even have to hear the song to wake it up. The mere mention, or even thought of the title, and it’s at you again. Thus the following warning, at the insistence of my attorney:

Stop reading. If the reader wishes to continue, they agree to indemnify the author  from any ill effects which may result from the mention of the music which follows, including but not limited to effects causing: 1. The necessity of medication, psychotherapy or institutionalization. 2. Self destructive behavior, including substance abuse and punching oneself in the ear in attempting to dislodge the worm.  3. Violence, mayhem and other criminal behavior.

I first encountered the pernicious earworm as a kid. Music was still taught in school, forth grade in my case. A good thing, except that some of the songs we learned, which tended to be of the cowboy variety, were earworms. “Red River Valley” was annoying. “Git Along Little Doggies” drove me crazy.

In 1967 I got my driver’s license and started a lifelong habit of trawling the airwaves for good new music.  There was plenty in ’67. There was also Bubblegum, with nasty critters like “Sugar Sugar,”  and “Yummy Yummy.” They taught me the skill of lightning fingers – grabbing the dial to escape before they got to me.  It’s telling that Joey Levine – who sang the latter song and produced many hits of the bubblegum genre- went on to become one of the greatest Jingle Kings to reign during the golden age of Jingles in the ‘70s and ‘80s (golden as in monster royalty checks from AFTRA/SAG).

The ‘70s saw an epidemic of earworms – benign ones, like those hatched by Gamble and Huff in Philly – but mostly malignant. I don’t actually hate ABBA, but avoided the movie “Mamma Mia!”, knowing that hearing those songs again might wreck months of my life. The same goes for the BeeGees, not to speak of Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond.

I will, however, attempt to dissect one earworm. I’d been hearing snippets of this thing for years, employing the lightning finger approach to avoiding it. But the other day, in the interest of this post, I forced myself to listen through the entire song. Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as I remembered. No.  It was worse.

“Jet,”  by Wings. Upon hearing a single verse and chorus the parasite that had been long slumbering in my ear was fully awake, drilling a hole in my brain. That the genius who wrote the transcendent “Here, There and Everywhere,” could come up with this excrescence is the strongest argument I know for “Just Say No” to marijuana. “Jet” is sheer nonsense, from that “Woo-oo-oo-Woo-oo-oo” to the inexplicable “The major was a lady, Suffra-GETTE!” the meaning of which must be stuck somewhere down in the screen of Sir Paul’s pipe. “I thought the only place was on the moon.”  Must be some dynamite stuff he was smoking. What’s maddening is that Paul delivers his unfathomable message with the joyous enthusiasm of a revival preacher. What’s so dangerous about the song is that Paul, for all his daftness, still possesses that genius for melody, and so his nonsense sticks with us. He hasn’t lost his skill at creating dramatic contrast either. The song quiets, and he assumes his intimate voice, whose sound alone once embodied all the best hopes of the ‘60’s, when he sang, “And in the end, the love you make…”

But here, it’s “Ah, mater, want jet to always love me.” Huh? Must be an important thought, so he repeats it. And finally explains, “Ah, mater…much later,” What a guy will do for a rhyme. Does it make a shred of sense? Reader, won’t you PLEASE, help me!

I got home from hearing that song and applied the only known cure for these pests – infecting yourself with something benign. Once they play, it’s like an old turntable has come on in your head and inertia keeps it spinning. It’s gotta play something. I knew I needed something powerful to replace Jet. I went straight for Brahms’ second symphony.

It gets immediately down to business, with a lovely French horn tune, which is varied by soaring violins. “Jet” began to recede, but was still eating at me.  Then came the famous “cantabile.” Cantabile means singable, and though instrumental, Brahms’ tune sings with a poignance that owes to his ingenious voicing of the violas above the violins. “Jet,” the whole lame catalogue of Wings, all of bad pop music of the ‘70s vanished.

Composers face a special problem with earworms. Many days I’ve spent playing the same four measures at least a hundred times, trying to get a phrase just right, a habit that long ago drove family members from the house when I’m composing. Whatever its eventual effect on my listeners, with repetition the blandest theme grows into a bug that crawls into my own ear and won’t let go.  It’s what got me in the habit of listening to music at the end of my working day – to try to clean out my head. Anything from the “Eroica,” to “Highway 61” always does the trick. I consider myself lucky.  By one telling, Ravel drove himself crazy playing the riff from “Bolero” over and over in his head.  Crazy, and the next thing he was dead.

Hooks, Ear Candy, Ear Worms are all just devices. The best composers conceal them, along with the rest of their machinery, so all you’re aware of as the song plays is that it’s taking you far away, to a very nice place. And you’re happy to return there, even if you sometimes stay a little longer than you expected.


From → 60's Music, Pop Music

  1. I had never heard the expression “earworm” but I must say it’s so perfect! You really nailed it and the Wings worm is the worst variety!
    Summer of ’08, I had a 3 day earworm going strong with a rockin’ pop ditty from “Fountains of Wayne” new release, that my son lent me. I really couldn’t shake it. Was I going mad? The worst was waking up with it on the 3rd morning still rolling through my head. Now, I can’t even remember the tune probably because,although I had copied the CD, I hid it once I was finally rid of the beast. The unfortunate thing is, it’s really not a bad song. It fully embodies all that is powerful in pop rock, not unlike..”I Want to Soak Up the Sun” Oh no-I apologize for even stating that title.
    My worst episode was by far summer of ’70 driving down to P-town to sell pen and ink sketches and maybe land a job. I got the offer, but no place to stay, so I slept in the dunes (1 night of those mosquitos was quite enough), followed by a week or two sleeping in my ’49 Willys Jeepster, but I digress. My enormous earworm of 1970, also by the same composer… (Wha happened?!) Are you ready for it? “We’re so sorry, Uncle Albert ..” .and the rousing chorus…HAAAAAAAAANNDS across the Water (water..) Again, I apologize for waking the beast. Also-“High Time We Waited” by Joe Cocker. WBCN, the only cool Boston radio station at that time just could not get enough of those 2 songs that summer. When I finally got home, I tried desperately to get a tape deck for my car, but it being 6-volt, nothing existed at all. I opted not to listen, but drive in silence, humming anything else I could think of. A personal favorite was John Lennon’s response to Paul- Ohhhhhhhhh… How do you Sleep. That always put a smile on my face.

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