Earworms

brittenEarworms are funny things.  What causes a particular passage of music to stick in one’s mind almost obsessively?  I’m thinking about this now because I’ve seen two operas twice in the last couple of weeks and one is filling my waking moments with highly detailed flashbacks.  It’s not just tunes.  I’m hearing the orchestration and the inflexion of the words.  And it’s not the odd tune here and there.  It’s great long passages and many of them.  The other, although I would recognise most every phrase on hearing it, is not doing that at all.  Here’s the odd thing.  The one that’s leaving no impression at all is number three world wide in terms of number of performances(1) and is, of course, Puccini’s La Bohème.  The one I can’t get out of my head is far down the list at number 88 and it’s Britten’s Peter Grimes (and note that it’s the Britten centenary).

Know I have to ponder whether there is any connection between this and the fact that while all the cheap seats for Peter Grimes seem to sell out, the boxes on fat cat row are half empty.

Note 1: http://www.operabase.com/top.cgi?lang=en&

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12 thoughts on “Earworms

  1. I too have had some obsessive Super Earworm experiences that were definitely outside and beyond normal earworm territory. Some of them went on for months. I wonder if these Super Earworms happen because our brains are more surprised and excited by hooking on to (and not letting go of) unusual harmonies, tonalities, melodies, rhythms etc than they are to music which goes where you would expect it to go? Hence your Britten vs Puccini experience? Or perhaps it’s that our brains and hearts sort of fall madly in love when the quality of the musical performances seem to be perfectly aligned with a composition’s inherent potential(s) for expression? I wouldn’t mind betting that there’s some physiological reason for Super Earworms, anyway.

      • I’d have the same results in Grimes v Boheme. (I’ve had more airtime on the internal radio for those damn foghorns this year than anything else.) Though the constant reference in the environment, which there has been for Britten this year obviously, may skew the outcome a little.

        But I think the point about Puccini is valid. Once you figure out his deal, your brain says “That’s great” and then moves on. He’s basically teflon. Britten, or at least Peter Grimes, is more like velcro — full of tiny hooks.

      • I have never gotten a Puccini earworm, which seems to support stray’s point about Puccini = teflon. (And I have had lots of Mozart and Beethoven and Verdi ones.)

      • Puccini as teflon is an excellent analogy. I’d add Bruckner to the teflon list, too. But Purcell, Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Prokofiev – as hooky and grabby as it gets.

      • Paula – agree so much on the Brookner front. He seems to be so revered by lovers of the Romantic symphony repertoire – to me it’s all just like a big warm bath…I find nothing to latch onto in his works. Much more a Sibelius person myself – now there are some catchy hooks!

  2. I’ve wondered about this too. Most of the things that stick in my head are things I know very well and have a strong response to – like you and Peter Grimes.

    I remember reading somewhere that some people are far more prone to earworms than others – I’d be willing to bet that succeptibility to them is strongly correlated with willingness/desire to listen to the same music repeatedly, with very close attention.

    • >>I’d be willing to bet that succeptibility to them is strongly correlated with willingness/desire to listen to the same music repeatedly, with very close attention.

      I wonder whether that correlates too with a taste for works that aren’t immediately/superficially attractive but require a bit of effort to get into. And does that go some way toward explaining why the Grand Tier is half empty for Grimes? (and, if I understand the game, that means that those empty seats are mostly subscriber seats either just left empty or returned for tax refund and they run $300+). I still struggle with the idea of people who have an opera subscription (an expensive one) because they think they ought to,rather because they actually LIKE opera, though I should not be surprised. I worked with people like that at AT Kearney.

      • The up-market subscriber crowd is a curious subculture. I grew up in those environs and still find the whole idea mystifying.

      • I find that baffling too (buying a subscription and then not going to the opera). I mean, if one merely wishes to be seen to support the arts without sitting through all that boring music, why not just make a donation?

      • Perhaps it’s a peculiar mixture of obligation and entitlement. “At a certain income level one ought to support the arts” coupled with a lukewarm actual appetitite. So one shows up for Boheme (because it’s basically just going to a musical) and passes on anything more demanding. One would think they might make some effort to give the tickets away if not actually attending though.

  3. I go along with the idea that certain earworms “stick” (yuck) because of the so-called “effort” involved in making sense of them. For Grimes, I am totally haunted by the “Glitter of waves” theme, but it took many, repeated listenings and an understanding of its context in the opera to get it “lodged”. But it’s there now forever I fear! As for Puccini – come to think of it, I love his melodies too, but don’t find myself humming them that often. Now with Massenet – that’s a different story!!!

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