Earworms and loopy tunes

In his latest column on sound, Patrick Langley wonders about those melodies we just can’t shake

By Patrick Langley

Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades III: The Secrets of Karbalaa, 2015 HD Film, colour, sound, English subtitles © Wael Shawky. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Watching Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show (2010), I found myself singing along. In the film, which uses marionettes to tell a history of the Crusades from an Arab perspective, a group of costumed puppets dance to an infectious melody picked out by ecstatic whoops and claps. In New York’s MOMA PS1 I opened Shazam on my phone, but the app didn’t recognise the tune and a moment later the scene changed. The song lasted less than a minute, and I haven’t heard it since. But four years later, I can still recall that melody. (The same cannot be said for the intricacies of the Crusades.)

In Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007), Oliver Sacks offers some context on how tenacious earworms can be. In his mid-seventies, he could still hear in his inner ear a Hebrew song about a little goat, sung on Seder nights in his Orthodox childhood home. His point is not that earworms offer Proustian portals to our past but that melodies are encoded in the brain directly. While the taste and smell of a coffee-soaked madeleine might conjure memories of the past by association, music is patterned like the mind itself. If a song is sufficiently catchy –simple and repetitive – you might remember it for the rest of your life. Brushing your teeth, say, or waiting for a train, the tune can at any point irrupt into your consciousness and loop uncontrollably. This is disheartening news for anyone familiar with Axel F by Crazy Frog.

I happened to be listening to Robyn’s Baby Forgive Me while reading Sacks’s book and, while I’ve had to reread chapters from Musicophilia to jog my memory of it, I can pull up her melancholy synth line without effort. The culmination of a neurologist’s lifelong fascination with music and a four-bar loop in a synth-pop banger can’t be directly compared, but, as Sacks argues and Robyn demonstrates, music and memory are intimately linked. This sensitivity can leave us vulnerable.

My brain is particularly susceptible to the kind of chipper, major-key melodies and claphappy rhythms of Shawky’s tune: a residue, perhaps, of enjoying the songs I sang in primary school assemblies. Songwriters and ad-execs know exactly how powerful a memorable line can be. I will never resent David Bowie for inscribing the riff from Sound and Vision into my mind, but I can’t say the same for “Washing machines live longer with Calgon!” or the insidious jingle for Capital FM circa 1995, which give me the sense that, as William Burroughs warned, mass media is a virus that allows corporations to wriggle into and control our minds. However hard I try to filter my exposure, I absorb and store sonic input indiscriminately: it makes no difference to my unconscious brain if a tune is delivered by a great artist or on behalf of Cillit Bang. The wall separating art from the propaganda of consumer capitalism is, on a neurological level, more permeable than I want to admit.

Sacks argues that music is ‘engraved’ on a ‘defenceless’ brain and calls the ubiquity of music in the modern age a ‘bombardment’. I thought he was overstating the case until I remembered the tinnitus-induced musical hallucinations my late step-grandmother suffered from during her final years, when the theme song from Chariots of Fire played in her head day and night. She described her experience as ‘torture’. It prompted me to think again about how dangerous earworms are, and whether I’ll eventually pay the price for looping tracks like Robyn’s while I wash the dishes.

For hearing people, the only way properly to legislate against the torment of a stuck song in old age is to avoid music altogether. But who among us could do that? I like to think that the art I love, in its ambivalence and complexity, mitigates against the reductive, viral forms of consumer culture that earworms help to propagate. We may be defenceless against these mnemonic devices but, as Shawky’s video demonstrated, the simplest of forms can be a vehicle for open-ended and unresolved content. That they can encapsulate an issue without diminishing its complexity is due in part, I think, to repetition and in part to the fact that melody ultimately transcends language. As such, Shawky’s song distilled an impossibly complex history and irresistibly simple truth: that we would do better to listen to other cultures than enter into wars against them. 

Patrick Langley is a critic and novelist based in London

From the January & February 2020 issue of ArtReview