Spring Cleaning, Ear Worms, and Other Matters

Everyone has an ear worm from time to time–a song playing in the head that will not go away.  As an annoyance, ear worms rank right up there with watery eyes and hiccups.  My husband, who is musical, hears only the melody, whereas my affliction can be triggered either by the tune or by the words of a song.  I remember both.  The most obnoxious example I can think of is “It’s a Small World After All.”  I first heard it at Disneyland when my son was six.  He’s now fifty, so it’s been at the top of the charts for a long time.

I’ve been reading articles on memory, others on language, and a book (The Singing Neanderthals) on music, memory, and language.  When I was in elementary school, it was still common to have to memorize poems and speeches, and of course all children had to memorize the multiplication tables as far as ten.  But that had gone by the wayside by the time I reached high school.  After fifty years of rejection, the idea of training the memory seems to be reviving faintly.  The theory was that, with calculators and computers to serve as artificial memory, teachers should focus on other kinds of learning.  Too many students had serious trouble in the memory sweepstakes.

I didn’t.  I started memorizing poetry when I was two or three.  My mother read to my brother and me, and what she read was poetry.  (Hello, John.  Happy birthday.)  She read Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses mostly, but also narrative poetry, some of it comic, from an anthology called Poems for Enjoyment.  I relied heavily on memory all the way through school and college.  My mother died in 2011 at 93.  I’m glad I thanked her for training my memory, though my training does make me super-vulnerable to ear worms.

What my brain has chosen to remember is odd.  German grammar, for instance.  I had four years of German in college, but I’ve only visited Germany once and then for less than a week.  I also studied Spanish and much later French, so why don’t those languages stick in my head the way German does?  Ich weiss nicht.  I also recall the process of extrapolation from trigonometry, though I’ve had even less use for trig than for Deutsch.  And most of all (or maybe worse of all) my head is full of poetry–other people’s.  Not just Shakespeare and John Donne but totally crappy country and western song lyrics and commercial jingles.

Since I’m at the age when people worry about dementia, I’ve thought about the advantage of having a head stocked with ready-made language.  Is it a good thing or a bad thing?  I don’t know, but sometimes I’d like to spring clean my head and erase a bunch of it.  Maybe then I could get rid of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “If I were a Rich Man” and all the other ear worms, especially “It’s a Small World.”  After all.



4 Responses

  1. I love this essay, Sheila, about earworms and your early readings. Our choir is rehearsing Gilkyson’s Requiem and I can’t sleep for crooning the alto of this beautiful sad song over and over in my head. My earworms are constantly wriggling in the wee hours of the night! I think, too of childhood poems I memorized, like Stevenson’s “Dark brown is the river, /Golden is the sand,/ It flows along forever”–yes! still humming along in my adult ears.

  2. Thanks, Nancy. “Dark brown is the river” was always my favorite too, along with “In winter I get up at night/ And dress by yellow candlelight.” I wanted badly to dress by candlelight.

  3. I’m studying voice and my inspiration is various baritones singing Schubert’s “Gute Nacht” so that goes through my head all the time. More prosaically, I’m learning Swedish, so simple things like “I’m going to have dinner now–“Jag ska etta middag nu”–wander through my head at unexpected times…. I know German and French and fully expect them to pop up in self-defense once I’m in Sweden when my brain runs dry. 🙂

  4. The more languages the better!

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