Sunday, November 07, 2010


Ear Worm

On December 20, 1989, United States troops invaded Panama in Operation Just Cause. A few days later, on Christmas Eve, Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega sought asylum in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City. He was finally forced out on January 4, after being bombarded by blaring rock and roll music around the clock for several days.

This type of musical torture would easily reduce me to submission. Noriega resisted for days, but I would probably surrender within minutes. My personal vision of hell is to spend all eternity in a smoky bar, forced to listen to rock and roll or hip hop or rap or whatever it's called these days.

A somewhat milder, self-induced form of musical torment is the silly song which you hum continually and just can't get out of your head. The Germans have a special word for this phenomenon — Ohrwurm (earwig, literally ear worm). An academic at the University of Cincinnati, James Kellaris, wrote a scholarly paper on the subject: "Identifying Properties of Tunes That Get 'Stuck in Your Head': Toward a Theory of Cognitive Itch,” in Susan E. Heckler and Stewart Shapiro, edd., Proceedings of the Society for Consumer Psychology Winter 2001 Conference (Scottsdale, Arizona: American Psychological Society).

Seneca (Letters to Lucilius 123.9, tr. Richard M. Gummere) long ago described the ear worm phenomenon:
Just as those who have attended a concert carry about in their heads the melodies and the charm of the songs they have heard — a proceeding which interferes with their thinking and does not allow them to concentrate upon serious subjects, — even so the speech of flatterers and enthusiasts over that which is depraved sticks in our minds long after we have heard them talk. It is not easy to rid the memory of a catching tune; it stays with us, lasts on, and comes back from time to time. Accordingly, you should close your ears against evil talk, and right at the outset, too; for when such talk has gained an entrance and the words are admitted and are in our minds, they become more shameless.

Quemadmodum qui audierunt symphoniam, ferunt secum in auribus modulationem illam ac dulcedinem cantuum, quae cogitationes impedit nec ad seria patitur intendi, sic adulatorum et prava laudantium sermo diutius haeret quam auditur. Nec facile est animo dulcem sonum excutere: prosequitur et durat et ex intervallo recurrit. Ideo cludendae sunt aures malis vocibus et quidem primis; quom initium fecerunt admissaeque sunt plus audent.

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