Earworms, Surgery and Musical hallucinations

September 18, 2008

“I hear singing and there’s no one there,
I smell blossoms and the trees are bare. . . .”
From ‘Call Me Madam’ Irving Berlin 1953

Earworms:The Cognitive Itch Theory

97% of us have the capacity to trigger simple audio hallucinations; For instance the sentence “brown girl in the rain” will for most of you cause an involuntarily re-occurring audio hallucination which can only be stopped by the words “Do you know the way to San Jose”. Commonly called  ‘Earworms’, this disorder is thought to be the result of specific musical properties of a song that trigger the brain to uncontrollably repeat the song in an attempt to resolve some logical musical anomaly. The most successful Earworm songs have a repetitive rhythm, bright catchy melody but importantly some unusual, unexpected musical aspect. For instance the BaHaMen’s “who let the dogs out” has an offbeat repetitive  “Who,Who” chorus making it ripe for repetitive neural analysis and keeping it high in the Earworm top ten:

Musical Factors determining Earworm effectiveness:

Song Duration:
The brain apparently only stores 15 to 30 seconds of a song, so short songs such as jingles and advertisements are particularly effective:
  • “The Super Mario Bros. theme”  from Nintendo
  • “The Final Countdown” by Europe.
Repeating lyrics, beats and musical patterns:
  • “Black Betty” by Ram Jam
  • “Can’t get you out of my head” Kylie Minogue
Unexpected musical elements:
Irregular beats and unfamiliar or unexpected sounds:
  • “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by the BahaMen
Songs that don’t resolve:
The brain seems to fixate on songs that don’t musically resolve:
  • “The Song that Never Ends” by Lamb Chop
Earworms are generally just irritating but in extreme cases can rise to the level of a serious debilitating disorder, preventing sleep and disrupting work. Earworms affect women more than men, musicians more than non-musicians and is commonly found in sufferers of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders and Depression. OCD behaviour, Depression and Earworm occurence has been linked to low levels of the neurotransmitter Serotonin in the Brain. With a little more research musicians or even worse, advertisers, could design music to target a vulnerable earworm audience – cutting out the middleware Cd or MP3 and turning the brain into a neural i-Pod, the ultimate in brand recall:
Top 10 earworms:
1. Kylie Minogue “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”
2. James Blunt “You’re Beautiful”
3. Baha Men “Who Let the Dogs Out”
4. Mission Impossible theme
5. Village People “YMCA”
6. Happy Days theme
7. Corinne Bailey Rae “Put Your Records On”
8. Suzanne Vega “Tom’s Diner”
9. Tight Fit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
10. Tiffany “I Think We’re Alone Now”
(James J.Kellaris, PhD, presentation to Society for Consumer Psychology, Feb. 22, 2003.)

Ringxiety and Fauxcellarms

Exposure to new technology brings new and unexpected behaviour; ‘Ringxiety’ is the neologism coined to describe the anxious state caused by the phantom ringing of a mobile phone. Bells were rung to attract attention over long distances in times of crisis. In history this sound  was associated with emergencies – fire, war, attack – and was rarely experienced. The invention of the the telephone brought this sound to into the home and the mobile phone, removed from a location context, now creates a state of constant vigilance; we’re waiting for the phone to ring anywhere, at any time.
Bells, and their digital cousin the ringtone, are particularly effective at attracting attention because the human ear is particularly sensitive to sounds within the bell’s 100-6000hz audio range. Unfortunately sounds within this frequency range are spatially more difficult to locate. This results in the irritating effect of being able to hear but not locate the source of the sound.
The ‘Ringxeity’ effect is due to a combination of the above factors: bell sounds associated with anxiety, the brains sensitivity to specific audio frequencies and a general state of expectation can cause the brain to produce ringtone hallucinations.
The efficacy of the Ringxiety effect has been used, accidentally or not, in advertising where the suggestion of a ringing tone automatically attracts the attention of the hapless subject:
Peter Arnell, the chief creative officer of the Arnell Group in New York and a major force in the marketing business, said that theory might not be far off the mark. While he said he has never been asked by a client to include sounds in an advertisement that would mimic a ringing cellphone, he thinks the increasing use of high-pitched, electronic tones is very much by design. People are using a sound trigger to control emotions,” Mr. Arnell said. “The most controlling device in our life right now is a cellphone. He suggested that a sound trick that sent confused listeners hunting for their cellphones might be especially effective for ads ending with a call to action.

Musical Hallucinations

Sensory deprivation, as CIA research and other agency interrogation materials demonstrate, is a remarkably simple concept. It can be inflicted by immobilizing individuals in small, soundproof rooms and fitting them with blacked-out goggles and earmuffs. “The first thing that happens is extraordinary hallucinations akin to mescaline, I mean extreme hallucinations of sight and sound. It is followed, in some cases within just two days, by a breakdown akin to psychosis.
Alfred McCoy,University of Wisconsin-Madison in “The CIA’s favorite form of torture” Salon.com
Within an hour or so people subjected to audio sensory deprivation will begin to experience musical hallucinations. The brain for the first time removed from audio stimulus seems to generate it’s own sounds, perhaps triggered by almost inaudible environmental sounds – like an audio equivalent of a Rorschach Test, our mind tries to make order and sense out of chaos, creating pattern from random ink blots and music from background noise.
Neurological disorders such as damage to the temporal lobe – the auditory cortex – caused by accidents, surgery or growths within the brain is known to cause musical hallucinations. This ‘disorder’ has been used to enhance the process of musical composition; After an operation on a shrapnel wound left him with a metal plate in his head, Dimitri Shostakovich is said* to have heard new compositions by tilting his head to a specific position. likewise the composer Vissarion Shebalin suffered a stroke (left temporo-parietal lesion) which left him unable to speak or walk yet  – according to his colleague Shostakovich – improved his musical composition. Robert Schumann suffered from an undiagnosed neurological condition probably brought about by mercury poisoning – a common treatment for the syphilis Schumann contracted as a youth. In later life Schumann was plagued by a continuous single ‘A’ note, preventing him from composing in any other key.  As the condition worsened the ‘A’ note evolved into ‘angelic trumpet music’, hallucinatory voices and compositions sent to him by the spirits of long dead composers.
In older people the auditory cortex ages and often reveals a hidden store of long forgotten music which returns unbidden with crystal clarity:
Among 30 elderly people in Wales suffering from the rare condition, fully six reported hearing the same hymn – the funereally popular Abide With Me. Christmas carols dominated the next six slots, with Silent Night and Away in a Manger taking silver and bronze. Lower down the list came How Much is That Doggy in the Window, Yes, We Have No Bananas, When I’m cleaning Windows, Begin the Beguine and Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.
Most of the Welsh patients reported a gradual onset of their hallucations, which typically involved one to three tunes, mostly heard as if they were in the same room. They were invariably in a major key, usually a vocal solo with instrumental backing, and two could name the singer: Luciano Pavarotti and George Formby.
*From ‘Shostakovich: Music on the Brain?’ by  Dajue Wang
It was shortly after the war. A new patient came to my clinic and as he entered the room I recognized him at once as our most celebrated composer. After the usual preliminaries I ask- ed him what his problem was and he explained that he had a piece of metal embedded in his head and wondered whether it should be removed. In some surprise I said I thought it was probably advisable, but asked him how it came to be there. During the war, he explained, he had been in a city which had been under siege and he had been injured when a shell exploded in the street near him. Medical care had been limited and it was only after he recovered that the fragment of metal had been discovered. I sent him to the X-ray department so that I could check exact- ly where the fragment was, and a few minutes later I was examining the still-wet plates. I saw at once that the fragment was deep inside the brain and I felt it was certainly better that it be removed. I told the patient this, but he seemed uncertain and reluctant to accept my advice. Eventually he explained why. Since the fragment had been there, he said, each time he lean- ed his head to one side he could hear music. His head was filled with melodies – different each time – which he then made use of when composing. Moving his head back level immediately stopped the music. I took him back to the X-ray department and this time I plac- ed him in front of the fluoroscope. On the screen I could see the outline of his skull and the fragment of metal within it. I asked him to move his head in the way he had described and on the screen the piece of metal could clearly be seen moving in his brain. The direction of the movement suggested that it was located in the temporal horn of the left ventricle (a hollow
cavity within the brain filled with cerebrospinal fluid), the very part of the brain, of course, that is concerned with hearing. I had never encountered such a case before and was uncer- tain of the best advice to give my patient. I therefore took the problem to my superior, the surgeon-general of the armed forces and our country’s leading neurosurgeon. He examined the pa- tient and the X-rays and after careful consideration advised that the fragment be left where it was. ‘After all’, he smiled, ‘a German shell will have done some good if it helps produce more music.

3 Responses to “Earworms, Surgery and Musical hallucinations”

  1. Shane said

    very interesting… thanks.

  2. duncandisorderly said

    I’m pretty sure it’s “brown girl in the ring”, you know….

  3. JAMIE said


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