I came in from the garden yesterday to hear Herself singing along with Maddie Prior’s rendering of Sweet Thames flow softly. There was nothing exceptional in that: informal duets with Maddie Prior or Ella Fitzgerald happen from time to time, and our home is all the better for them. No, the reason for bringing it up is that the song lodged itself in my brain and has been running in the mental background ever since. At any break in conscious, deliberate thought, two alto voices intone “Flow sweet river, flow…” completely unbidden. It has become an earworm.
Earworms are those pieces of music that settle themselves in your mind and repeat whenever your brain is, as it were, in neutral. It is a phenomenon common enough to have a Wikipedia entry (mind you, so does almost everything) and to have been discussed in the Daily Telegraph. Presumably different people are susceptible to different earworms. Rock music does not appeal to me, so never manifests as an earworm, whereas passages of orchestral music, or Louis Armstrong singing Summer Song, frequently occupy the space currently engaged by Ms Prior. My capacity for earworms can be useful. Changing flights at Schiphol on one of many such occasions, I managed to pass the time by closing my eyes and letting Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto run in its entirety. And that’s the curious thing about earworms, at least as they infest my grey matter. I have a dreadful memory. I read novels and forget the plot within a few days of having finished one. I read an unfashionable amount of poetry, but can only recite from memory one poem, and that is The Monster Bed, from a children’s book. So music sticks in the memory in detail and at length, whereas sequences of words do not.
Why is music so memorable? I don’t mean that in the sense that any specific piece of music will necessarily be easily recalled: some is definitely best forgotten. But music in general seems to be absorbed and filed away by the brain in a different way to verbal input. This is one of the things that convinces me that music is not just, as psychologist Steven Pinker would have it, “Auditory cheesecake” that is biologically useless. Perhaps Pinker is immune to earworms? The other notable thing about music is that we recognize it as such, even if the genre is something unfamiliar to us. The musical traditions of other cultures can be remarkably different from those of Western Europe, such as the music associated with Japanese Noh theatre, but we still recognize it as music, not just random noise. When western composers flirted with 12-tone serialism in the 20th century, their innovative experimentation failed to appeal to a wider audience simply because it was no longer music. It had lost something that spoke to a deep part of the human brain.
This is not the place to pursue the place of music in human cognitive evolution, and I am not the person for such a pursuit. I will continue to be bothered by earworms, surprised by just how much music is held in the cobwebbed back-rooms of my mind, and convinced that this tells us something interesting about the place of music in all human cultures. Meanwhile, the only way to dislodge Maddie Prior, whose time is definitely up, is to replace her with a different earworm by listening to something memorable and distinctive. Sounds like a job for Michael Tippett.