(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Taylor Swift doesn’t write earworms. This is something I discovered while trying to banish an especially pesky Christmas song that had taken up residence in my cranium and was running laps around my skull. I started thinking about songwriters who don’t write earworms.
Earworms are also known as a song’s super powerful hooks that burrow into your brain, and stay and stay, for a long, long, maddening time. Like a worm screwing itself down into your skull for an extended stay. A song built around a hook is usually — although not always — a slight song meant to become a brief commercial radio hit. A few truly memorable songs do lend themselves to wormery, though not deliberately.
I actually tried, unsuccessfully, to infect myself with Taylor songs as earworms just as a scientific test, but they didn’t stick. I can remember the songs, but my brain lets go of them after an intended listening period. Earworms, also known as earwurms, from the German Ohrwurm, on the other hand, can be painful pests, living in your head for hours, days, weeks, months and — in some severe cases — even years.
Aural experts posit that earworms are most easily caused by repetition, simplicity, and by a slight incongruity in the songs, as in such perennial earworm survivors as “Who Let the Dogs Out” and “Achy Breaky Heart.”
Here are a few examples of persistent songs and hooks that easily turn into endlessly nagging earworms:
“Just call me angel of the morning”
“You Should Be Dancing”
“The Bed Intruder Song”“Jesus, take the wheel”
“And I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee”
“We will, we will rock you”
“On the road again/I just can’t wait to get on the road again”
“Can’t get you out of my head”
“Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville”
“Rock the Casbah”
“Raindrops keep falling on my head”
“Country roads, take me home”
“I beg your pardon/I never promised you a rose garden”“I will always love you”
“I’m proud to be a coal miner’s daughter”
“You ain’t woman enough to take my man”
Is an earworm just a musical hook? Not necessarily. But it begins with a repeated hook. Almost any Beach Boys hit is an automatic earworm: “Ba-ba-ba Barbara Ann/Take My Hand/Barbara Ann.” “I wish they all could be California girls.” Just about any Abba song is ready to take over your brain after only one exposure. Don’t start singing “Dancing Queen” or “Chiquitita” to yourself, or you’re doomed. And such TV theme songs from Hawaii 5-0, Cheers and Beverly Hillbillies will never fade away. I was not terribly surprised to recently hear Queen co-founder and guitarist Brian Maye describe how he wrote the group’s sports anthem “We Will Rock You” based on the use of prime numbers. Maye is, after all, a physicist. True story.
I’m not an aural authority, mind you. I’m just someone who knows what gets stuck in my brain and what doesn’t.
The neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has advanced the theory that earworms may be caused by constant exposure to unwanted music. He told Wired Magazine, ” … I can’t help wondering if the incidence of earworms and musical hallucinations is higher now, with background music in every public place. … The brain is very sensitive to music; you don’t have to attend to it to record it internally and be affected by it.”
Most contemporary country radio hits really don’t have enough of a long-term, convincing hook to be able to turn into a big-time, lingering, maddening earworm. A shallow hook can’t really get into your brain big-time. Hank Williams songs are memorable but don’t — at least for me — turn into earworms. Kris Kristofferson songs don’t ordinarily, although phrases like “Help me make it through the night” or “Sunday morning coming down” sometimes try to.
Kenny Chesney’s “Don’t Blink,” with such lines as “Don’t blink/Just like that you’re six years old and you take a nap and you wake up and you’re twenty-five and your high school sweetheart becomes your wife” could not be an earworm. But his catchy and very singable “Anything but Mine” is a very persistent earworm.
A man who calls himself DJ Earworm has actually turned worms into a lucrative personal gig. He does annual mashups of the 25 most popular songs, and those yearly “United State of Pop” mixes do well on radio and on the Internet. So, there is an audience for that sort of thing.
Are there cures for earworms? Opinions differ. What is heralded as the ultimate earworm cure is the song “Stay (I Missed You),” by Lisa Loeb. Its curative appeal? It doesn’t have a chorus, so people can quickly forget it.
Other cure suggestions include listening to the entire version of the offending worm, or replacing it with one that is less offensive. I find both ideas risky. Another suggestion is to listen to talk radio till the worm turns. That’s equally unappealing. Attendance at a very loud fireworks show has proven to sometimes be an effective palliative.
Here are my personal candidates for the Earworm Hall of Infamy:
“Sex Machine,” “Que Sera Sera,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again),” “Eye of the Tiger,” “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “Achy Breaky Heart,” “Take Me to the River” (Talking Heads version), “Any Man of Mine,” “Who Let the Dogs Out” and “Honey, I’m Home.” And the all-time champion has to be “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Note to songwriters: Remember. Only you can prevent global worming.