Is your brain stuck on a musical tune?

By Chelle Delaney: Quay County Sun

Sometimes we get songs that are stuck in our heads. We keep hearing the song, or a fragment of a song, over and over.

After hearing a TV commercial about the “itsy, bitsy” yellow polka-dot bikini, I kept hearing my brain do a replay for several hours. I even tried to sing another song over it to dismiss the tune. No luck.

Scientists call that the “stuck song syndrome” or even “ear worm.”

That’s according to the book, “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.”

The author, Daniel J. Levitin, started out as a musician, became a producer of recordings, then switched to studying the brain. Or, rather he began studying the effects of music on the brain.

Levitin writes that musicians are more likely to have “ear worms” than nonmusicians. And that the attacks are more likely to appear in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The best explanation is that the neural circuits get stuck in a “playback” mode and last for 15 to 30 seconds.

Seems like all of many of us may be a little-bit-musicians. No need to comment on the OCD part.

Is everybody a musician?

Maybe we can’t play an instrument, but most of us can sing. And while we may not be able to “make up” a song, we can usually remember and reproduce what we’ve heard, sort of.

It always sounds better in the CD in my brain than it does from my vocal chords.
Anyway, Levitin found that he wasn’t the only one who was interested in the subject of the relationship between music and the brain.

He went back to Darwin, who said, “I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex.”

Levitin goes on to say that Darwin believed that music preceded speech as a means of courtship.

So maybe it would be wise to practice, since these are probably embedded in our genes.

You probably join your voice with others in singing at the church of your choice. And there are popular songs that you can remember and sing.

Levitin devotes pages and pages in his book to explaining the complexities of music. But all that explanation does – for those of us who find that complexity difficult to understand – is make the ability of our brains to hear and enjoy the sophisticated things that musicians do rather amazing.

But, of course, we start learning early. Tests have been done to show that babies in their mothers’ wombs begin hearing music about four months before they are born. And some folks have made business of it, producing CDs that pregnant moms can play.

But to become a real expert musician takes practice. According to one study that Levitin describes, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a world class expert in music – or anything.

But what about Mozart? Levitin says that Mozart didn’t write his first symphony until he was eight – and, according to experts, it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t until the precocious child grew up that he became Mozart.

But back to ancient times. It is guessed that, before written language, many ancient tales and epics, even the Old Testament, were set to music so they could be passed on to succeeding generations by oral tradition.
Isn’t it the tune that helps you remember the words to the songs? And isn’t it true that when you hear a word or two … you can come up with the tune?
Fact is, you have music in your brain, and probably a couple of ear worms, too.

Chelle Delaney is associate publisher of the Quay County Sun. She can be reached by calling 461-1952 or by email: