You play it, I’ll hum it (and hum it, and hum it)

Not so fast Elvis... Dodging earworms.

Not so fast Mr Costello.

It struck at 3.40am last Wednesday. Waking briefly in the middle of the night I lay in bed as it looped around my head.

Twenty four hours later it hit again, this time in the middle of a morning run.

After I returned from my jog it pestered me in the shower.

Later that day, walking down a flight of stairs at work, it sprang up, maddeningly.

He’s a Battered Old Bird 
And he’s living up there 
There’s a place where time stands still 
If you keep taking those little pink pills…

The words are from a not-very-well-known Elvis Costello song, Battered Old Bird. The tune torments me.

I’m vigilant about it, though. On the occasions that I listen to Blood and Chocolate, the album on which Battered Old Bird features, I rush to hit the skip button as soon as the song preceding it begins to wind down.

Last week it popped up on shuffle and somehow caught me unawares. This led to 48 or more hours of the chorus erupting every time my brain dropped into ‘stall’ mode: while eating, washing the dishes, tying my shoelaces, putting out the bin.

After two days I managed to dislodge it.

'God, no...not Goodbye Yellow Brick Road!' 'The Scream'. Edvard Munch. Pic: The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

‘God, no…not Goodbye Yellow Brick Road!’
‘The Scream’. Edvard Munch.
Pic: The National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

How? By listening to the only other melody which burrows even deeper into my short term auditory memory, an infuriating Richard Thompson tune.

And so the process began again.

So it is with earworms – otherwise know as stuck song syndrome (or, it you’re being clinical, ‘musical imagery repetition’).

Some 98pc of us encounter them (and three quarters of our earworms are songs with lyrics – perhaps I should listen to more classical and jazz).

Edgar Allan Poe was writing about them back in 1845, their length is usually between 15 and 30 seconds, and two proven methods of stopping them are reading a good novel and completing a moderately-difficult anagram.

So prevalent are they that two researchers (for whom I have a great deal of sympathy) endeavoured in 2012 to find the most common earworm in the UK. It turned out to be Queen’s We Will Rock You (go on, hum it, I dare you).

This led, in an act of research likely precipitate insanity in the coming 48 hours, to my considering my personal top five earworms.

Here they are, the songs I will never play, the tunes that drive me from stores or coffee shops within four bars, the numbers that could see the radio silenced, possibly permanently, against a wall.

Deep breath…

5. The Clancy Brothers, Finnegan’s Wake

4. Pete Seeger: Guantanamero (or anyone’s version, really)

3. Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

2. Richard Thompson: Let It Blow

1. And, finally, Battered Old Bird. Really, listen to this one at your peril

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3 thoughts on “You play it, I’ll hum it (and hum it, and hum it)

  1. Amanda says:

    “Guantanamero” gets even worse when you read Dave Barry’s “Mangled Lyrics” column and find out about “One Ton Tomato, I ate a One Ton Tomato. One Ton Tomato. I ate a one ton tomato…” That one will stick around for days.

  2. […] written about earworms previously. In most cases they disappear after 24 hours, having been pushed out by something else. But […]

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