FROM CHRISTMAS 2007
WHEN HOLIDAY TUNES
INFEST YOUR BRAIN
"SOCK IT TO 'EM, GENE!
'HERE COMES SANTA
CLAUS, RIGHT DOWN
SANTA CLAUS LANE!'
MOVE OVER, SUCKER!"
Watch out: Here Comes
Gene Autrys Santa Claus
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
When I went to bed whistling Here Comes Santa Claus and woke up humming it the other day, I knew I had a bad case of earworms--an involuntary attraction to mindless ditties. The epidemic hits me every year around the Christmas holidays, and Im not alone.
The Germans call these annoying tunes ohrwurms (pronounce it or-vurms to impress your inferiors) and some American colleges are studying how they nest in the brain and refuse to go to sleep.
Composers of commercial jingles have broken the code. They know exactly how to lodge their tunes in our brains. Its all about hitting the right sequence of notes and tying them up to simple-minded lyrics. The foremost practitioner is Jim van Heusen, composer of one of the most dangerous melodies in the Western World, Love and Marriage, which became the unforgettable Campbell's Soup commercial, "Soup and Sandwich." Gene Autry gets the blame for Here Comes Santa Claus.
With shopping malls and public streets now blasting Christmas music indiscriminately, the earworm plague seems to have taken over the urban landscape. I heard Jingle Bells last week in a Bordeaux supermarket.
It matters not whether you like the music. In fact the less you like it the longer the tunes hang around in the memory cells, circling the mind relentlessly.
As neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks has written, when this happens, the music has entered and subverted part of the brain, forcing it to fire repetitively as may happen with a tic or a seizure.
In his new book Musicophilia he quotes a patient recalling a bout of earworms. The song Love and Marriage took possession of the man for 10 days, leading him to try desperately to shut it off. I jumped up and down. I counted to a hundred. I splashed water on my face. I tried talking loudly to myself, plugging my ears. Finally it subsided, only to return when he told Dr. Sacks about it.
My sister, Ann Tudor, is a Toronto-based amateur pianist and singer. She wrote me recently that she had just suffered a horrific earworm attack. She found herself madly repeating the New Orleans favorite Darktown Strutters Ball day and night for two or three days, even mouthing the lyrics. I dont dare talk to her about it for fear of waking up her uninvited musical guest again.
Musical memory takes many curious forms. Researchers say the constant repetition of popular music--inescapable today in iPods, portable CD players, on the radio, in the air everywhere--trains us from childhood to expect certain patterns of notes. This enables worn-out melodies to take up residence comfortably in the brain, where the patterns have been deeply etched.
Musicians, unlike the rest of us, exploit this ability and put away hours of material that they then summon up at will. The continuous exercising of the brains musical ability leaves physical tracks. One Harvard University study showed that professional musicians have larger volumes of grey matter in motor, auditory and spatial areas of the cortex as well as in the cerebellum. Even small children with a year or two of violin lessons show the same physical impact, known as the Mozart effect.
Anatomists could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moments hesitation, Dr. Sacks writes.
Musical memory is perhaps most intriguing in classical compositions, where hundreds of thousands of notes must be captured and stored for long periods. Performers add this pool of raw material to their own muscle memory built up from thousands of hours of practicing.
I am always amazed to see young musicians able to carry around in their heads two full-length piano concertos plus a couple of hours of solo recital pieces. As they mature, they add continuously to their mental library. I read recently that Russian pianist Konstantin Scherbakov holds about 50 concertos in his mind plus an unspecific quantity of solo piano pieces. How can this man remember his name, much less spell it?
I wondered what kind of numbers might be involved in such a feat, so I counted the notes in Franz Liszts Dante sonata, a piece from the basic repertoire. After a couple of painstaking hours I came up with a grand total of 11,112 notes. Some day I want to do the same for one of the big piano concertos. The result will be in the hundreds of thousands.
As I have dealt with piano masters over the years I asked a few of them how they managed to remember everything. One said he visualizes the sheet music, page by page. Another had her own system. She said that when you know a piece, you gradually understand where the next notes fall--and that it could not be otherwise.
Maybe, but neither trick works for me. I dabble at the piano but have never been able to memorize anything. I have to read it off the page. My only exception is the John Cage composition 433 the famous silent piece during which the pianist sits at the piano with a stopwatch staring into space and playing nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The music is the murmuring of the audience trying to figure out whats going on. That one I can handle, even while humming Here Comes Santa Claus.
©2007 by Michael Johnson. The illustration combines an image of Gene Autry with a cartoon from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted Dec. 10, 2007.
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