Monday, August 13, 2007


Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
******Percy Bysshe Shelley

HANK: I had an erudite and thoughtful idea for this week, I really did. All based on a Gail Caldwell column called Lingua Fracta. But then I read that RO's current favorite song is Walking After Midnight by Patsy Cline. A song I love, too. So I started humming it, and thinking about it. And that was days ago. And now it's in my way. I think they call them "earworms."

Now that you've heard that term, you can’t get it out of your head, right? And that’s exactly why I can’t listen to music when I write.

In the 60's I insisted I could not do my homework without listening to music. I had my little transistor radio, and I would put that plastic earpiece in, and bop around to Da Doo Ron Ron or I Get Around or It’s My Party. Dancing in the Street. Anything Beatles.

Today. I'm a TV reporter, have been for 30 years, and there’s not a moment of my workday when the television is not on. Sometimes three of them, all turned to different stations, all humming and buzzing in the background. And I ignore it, until my brain (is it the hypothalamus?) picks up on a word or phrase or sound that drags me to the remote to zap up the volume. Extraneous noise? Nope, it’s just the music of the news, and I’m used to it and embrace it.

But at home, writing, I cannot, cannot listen to music. It’s the earworm thing.

What’s an earworm? Let’s say you’re in the grocery, and that Muzak is on. Just in the background. And you have the misfortune to hear "It’s A Small World after All." Ahhhhh. That darn song is going to stick in your brain, humming over and over, forever. It’s an earworm.

How about Saturday in the Park by Chicago? (Saturday, in the park, I think it was the fourth of July…) Ah…stop. Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind… There’s a commercial for sour cream about "a dollop of daisy." Have you heard that? I heard it once, and sang it for about a week.

Hey, Macarena.

And so, I work in silence. If a song has words, they stick in my brain and play where my own words are supposed to be.
So can you manage music when you read or write?

Not only can I NOT work with music on in the room, I can't work if the construction guys at my neighbor's house are blaring the radio as they install new garage doors. Really, the power tools don't bother me, but I've had to go next door and beg them to turn off the music.

I think it's called EASILY DISTRACTED. Or maybe -- Rather-be-listening-to-the-lyrics-than-writing-this-scene. But it's odd because I spent many years writing in a newsroom -- which is loud and chaotic. Of course, then I was on a tight deadline and there was a lot of peer pressure and editors on hand to help with the discipline.

I've never heard the term earworms, but its great. Perhaps its the pattern of melody that's the problem. Our brains want to keep track of the chorus - are ever-ready to chime in.

From watching too much baseball on NESN last year -- I had that god-awful Foxwoods jingle stuck in my head. The Wonder of It All -- and I HATED those commercials. When the kids were little we used to listen to Sesame Street tapes in the car and for years - it seemed-- I had PUT DOWN THE DUCKY and the MONSTER MASH worming their way though my ears.

I take two Pilates classes, in one, the music is wonderful, and I never think about it afterward, in the other, its one Euro-pop song after another. You can barely make out the lyrics for all the reverb, but these innane melodies get cemented into my head. Which leads me to another question for debate: does only the annoying music get stuck, or do we simply not mind if a good song continues to play and play and play?

Earworms, ick. Sounds like earwigs, which I can easily imagine slithering into an ear. I wonder if you could turn them off by eating some really stinky cheese or listening to the Nixon tapes.

I don't get earworms so much as noseworms. Smells that haunt me. Fresh baked bread. Watermelon. Bar-b-que flavor potato chips. It usually haunts me until I'm driven into the kitchen to forage. This is a major disadvantage of working at home.

You guys are cracking me up. Sorry for having caused this but if you've got to have something stuck in your head, better to have Patsy Cline than the damn Foxwoods jingle. (Was it the playoffs last year? It drove me crazy..oh yeah, pop a cork, like those guys are all drinking champagne...)

I write longhand first, then put on computer. First time, I couldn't possibly listen to music, or anything. (Like my neighbor's children who don't know how lucky they are to still be alive.) Entering on computer, I'll sometimes have a game on in the background.

The good songs get stuck too. The Clash frequently take up residence in my little brain - "darlin' you got to let me know..." but more often it's the excruciating stuff. I had to stop taking my spin class because the instructor kept playing "My Humps" and it was unseemly for a grown woman to be walking around singing about her lovely lady lumps, which I found myself doing on Tuesday afternoons.

Someone told me: if you get an earworm, the only cure is to sing Jingle Bell Rock. Okay, I know. It sounds weird. But it does seem to work.Do you have your personal earworms? Tell us—if you dare!


  1. Almost anything from the Top 40 circa late 60's/70's seems to do it. I think because they are simple and repetitive -- examples: "Brandi, you're a fine girl, what a good wife you would be", "I'm so dizzy, my head is spinning, like a whirlpool it never ends", "I think we're alone now", and I totally agree about The Clash and also, Talking Heads, "Burning down the house" stays with me...

  2. Earworms? I think I saw that on a corpse once...

    I cannot write with a lot of ambient sound and if the music has lyrics, forget it. Classical is okay, but even that usually gets shut off.

    I wanted to share a story that Hank, in particular, may appreciate. In my "day" job, I'm often called into the Dispatch Center where there is a clutter of sounds - police radios crackling, Nextels going off, a tv in the background, phones ringing, etc. I can be in the middle of chatting with a dispatcher and they will abruptly break away and respond to an officer calling that I never even heard. Just like Hank picks up on keywords coming from one of three TVs, these folks are so tuned to that radio that they can hear it and recall everything said, even in the midst of conversing on a completely different topic with someone else. It always amazes me. Many can keep several simultaneous conversations going at once, too, and process them all at the same time. It's a very special skill to be able to train your brain and your ear, worms or not, to function like that.

  3. Hey Felicia! Welcome!
    Yes, I agree it's incredibly interesting how we can train our brains to single out what's important. Or maybe it's not training--maybe it's hard wired.

    It's like when you're at a party, in the midst of the buzz and the clamor, and then someone across the room says your name in a normal voice. And you absoultely hear that, don't you?

    It's as if everything else goes quiet.

    I'd go look this up on the web and sound smarter, but I'm thnking there's a part of the brain that handles this processing. It weeds out what you don't need and discards it, and focuses on what's important.

    How a mother can hear the voice of her own child over the din in a crowded playground. How your dispatchers can hear an "officer in trouble" call over the chaos of a bustling day.

    We're big Black Widow fans, by the way...nice to see you here! (You guys, click on Felicia's link and check it out..)

    As for you, devious Lisa! I've been singing "I think we're alone now" all day. Thanks, pal. (Although I know this was all my fault...)

  4. Thanks for the support, Hank!

    I did a little Googling around because I remembered there was a study that demonstrated a clear difference in how men process noise vs. women. This excerpt is from New Man Magazine (lest I be accused of being biased):

    "The areas of the brain responsible for language development are larger in women, thus giving a physical explanation as to why little Joan is quoting Shakespeare while little Joe is still repeating nursery rhymes. The areas of the brain that process auditory signals also exhibit gender differences. Women tend to process sounds equally well from both ears, whereas men tend to have a dominant side to their auditory perception. This tends to allow women to process background noises more effectively, while men focus on a dominant sound. This adds to the tendency of men to be task-oriented because they intensely focus their senses on one thing at a time. "Selective hearing" in men may actually have a physiological basis!" Full article:

    No earworms there...

  5. I generally write more readily to music -- instrumental only and, depending on what I'm writing, often in minor keys.

    Thomas Newman (Meet Joe Black, Angels in America, American Beauty, Erin Brockovich, etc.) can jump start me on a roll that no other composer matches, though some James Horner comes close. If I have to write to a deadline and with a minimum of time for revision, it's Thomas Newman all the way, baby. (I often start by playing the "More Life" track from Angels in America, and somehow start "hearing" opening and closing lines. Weird, huh?)

    Apart from writing, I rarely listen to these composers.

    I absolutely cannot write to music with lyrics, ever. But I wrote my Master's thesis to two soundtracks primarily -- Brideshead Revisited and Splash. My poor husband wins some kind of halo for listening to these two albums (days before headphones, it were) every night for six weeks.

    As for ear worms, yes, I get them. Two days ago it was Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Dani California."
    Not a good song to get stuck with, since it's a storytelling lyric.


  6. So, Felicia, you mean when my darling husband is watching baseball on TV (and nothing wrong with that, gotta love the Red Sox) and I talk (only between pitches) about something else, and he has no idea what I've been talking about when I push for a response--it's possible that he actually literally didn't hear me?
    Hmm. WOnder if I can use that to get him to agree to something...

    And Susannah, I'm checking out Thomas Newman asap. ALthough as a result of your post, I'm singing RANDY Newman's "Every Man a King."

    And it's clear music can inspire ideas--although once I had a great idea at the symphony,and could not bear the thought of forgetting it, and so I wrote it on my program. The guy in front of me apparently could hear my pencil writing--he turned around and hissed at me to stop writing. Yikes.

    I guess he wasn't totally focused on the music.

    Anyone else have songs or music that inspires them to write? That would be fun to hear about..

  7. My daughter made me a mystery mix to play as an intro when I hosted Reading with Robin's book show last year. And on it, she put Watching the Detectives by Elvis Costello, which I sometimes play before, but not WHILE, I write.

  8. Hank, leverage those in-between-pitches conversations for all you can!

    Trouble with listening to music is that I love it so much, I can't focus on anything else. However, I will say that since I used Barbra Streisand's "Queen Bee" as the theme for the Black Widow Agency trailer, I play that whenever I need a pick me up.

    Jan, I love "Watching the Detectives." My daughter and I sing along to it whenever we watch History Detectives together. Great song, great show.

  9. I LOVE History Detectives. I think the theme song is terrific, and now, it's an earworm. Thanks, Felicia.

    I also seriously considered sending them a letter, asking if they needed another reporter, or writer. I figured I'd write my inquiry in the History Detective style.

    "I saw a show on Television. What was the title? I had to know. How would I find out? I turned to my local newspaper. The Boston Globe. Which, newspaper expert Sally Shmoe told me, often had current TV listings. Back in the recesses of her archives office, we looked in the index, and she showed me how to pull the file for yesterday's paper. Would the show I was looking for be there? I had to find out."

    Think they'd hire me?

    Anyone else seen this show?

  10. My earworm is my personal mantra, we shall see, sort of an OCD thing. Or a talisman.

    And never can music play while I'm writing. Well, the only exception was Mozart's Requiem when I was writing a death scene.


  11. Hey Amy--say hi to the gang at The Writers' Group---Lynne's Negotiation Generation is next to be released right? (Attention all parents..)

    YOu know, I can see how the Mozart could have been an inspiration in writing your scene...hmm. That could work. Any more musical secret weapons out there?

    Maybe we could make a library of them...

  12. I can listen to only classical -- usually it's better if it's a string quartet or just piano. Nothing too symphonic and definitely nothing with lyrics. Someone mentioned works in minor keys, and there's something to that. I love the Pablo Casals Bach cello solos.

  13. Hank, you're hired! I'm sending you a pair of white cotton gloves as we speak.

    History Detectives IS a great show. If only history had been that interesting all throughout my college years, I might have paid better attention.

    Lisa, love Pablo Casals. There's just something about the cello that resonates emotionally with me. I've also been listening to the Yo-Yo Ma's "Inspired by Bach" series.

  14. Felicia, duly noted -- I'll probably have to get it too. Solo cello pieces are so mournful, but so beautiful and I don't know why the cello is always the perfect accompaniment to writing for me, but it is.

  15. Thanks guys, I'm going to try this cello thing. Are there pieces -- either cello or any other instrumental -- that are particularly good for writing tension?
    Can always use a good jump start!

  16. Lisa, I took my freshman calculus exam with "Brandi, you're a fine girl..." running through my head. Don't know how it got in there, since I've never been any good at mixing music with lyrics and concentration. Sometimes I'll listen to the Lord of the Rings CDs my kids gave me and long ago when I still had a record player in the same room, I'd put on "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" or "Pleasures of the Court"--lots of harpsichord and other 16th century instruments. And I don't write historicals!

    I'm thinking of a new writing incentive: I'll put on my teenage sons' CDs and force myself to endure until I've written my quota of words for the day. No more checking e-mail endlessly or staring out at the yard for inspiration. My stories will probably get more violent.

    Hank, those history detectives do seem to have all the fun. Has anyone read "The Daughter of Time" by Josephine Tey? A British detective sidelined with a broken leg tackles the "cold case" of Richard III and the disappearance of the young princes.

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  19. Oops. Posted in triplicate, deleted two. Honest. Nothing interesting was deleted.

  20. Aliasmo: Yes, I loved Daughter of Time. Didn't you? In fact, it may be in my top five. What a tour de force, having the detective be bedridden, solving a mystery from the past. Clever, smart, even, gasp, educational. You're so right--talk about history detective!

    Ok--putting together next week's gender quiz. One fabulous reader (and you know who you are) sent in two diabolically impossible snippets--anyone else care to send in some stumpers?

    Lisa, are you there? As reigning champ you may want to send me a couple..