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Jackie Hope: Cure for the uncommon earworms

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Soooo, got a song stuck in your head? Right now, do you have a song banging around between your ears? No? OK, then don’t think about any songs like “Achy Breaky Heart” or “It’s a Small World.”

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Scientists actually have a name for … “But don’t tell my heart, my achy breaky …” Um, scientists have a name for songs that get stuck in your head. They are earworms. Yeah, kinda like the worms that get into the ears of your sweet corn crop. Earworm caterpillars are mining in your delicious sweet corn along about this time of year. And when you go to shuck out your suppertime treat, you pull off the tassels and out rolls a well-fattened worm. Fattened at the expense of your supper. But there are other earworms, too, and they are heard, instead of seen. And they are fattened at the expense of your sanity.

Earworms were first studied, and named, in the 1980s, according to neurologist Oliver Sachs. Sachs probably knows his stuff, because he was on PBS’s “Nova,” and he also wrote a book called “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.” Here is a man who knows about brains, and about achy breaky hearts. “And if you tell my heart, my achy breaky heart …”

The term “earworm” comes from a German word, “ohrwurm,” and is a calque. Which is a fancy way of saying that the word translates literally from German into English. Well, small world. “It’s a small world after all …”

Urbandictionary.com defines an earworm as, “A song that sticks in your mind, and will not leave no matter how much you try.

The worst examples: “Toxic” by Britney Spears or any damn Hilary Duff song. What, no “Call Me Maybe”? Well, that was informative. And one of the least profane definitions Urban Dictionary has ever posted. Really. Be ready for your face to melt and your eyeballs to rot if you ever go to that site. Not that anyone we know goes there regularly to look up words. Damn straight, we don’t go there.

Psychologist Vicky Williamson spoke about collecting earworms with National Public Radio’s John Donovan in March 2012. Yeah, as a collectible, earworms are pretty strange. But look at it this way: You don’t have to dust them every Saturday morning and they don’t take up much shelf space. Except the space between your ears, or in your heart. “… achy, breaky heart. I just don’t think he’d understand.”

Williams says earworm-itis is uncommonly common. In fact, she estimates 90 percent of us get a song stuck in our heads once a week. And the other 10 percent are tone deaf, or what? Man, I remember this chick who sat next to me in choral music class. She was the loudest singer in our row and sang in my right ear for a year. Could not match a tone to save herself. The prof would hum Middle C at her, and she would hum a Sorta-C, though it sounded like somebody stepping on a bagpipe. And then the prof would make me hum Middle C, and it would sound Sorta-Like-C-But ...

Apparently earworm tunes, for most worm-heads, are the simplest tunes. Like “… don’t tell my heart, my achy breaky.” But Williams says, “That is not the whole story,” because she has known people to have entire symphonies stuck in their heads. Makes sense. I get Bach’s “Toccata in D Minor” stuck regularly in my head. Especially the waterfall part at the very end. For true. “E-C Sharp-E-C Sharp-B Flat-C Sharp-B Flat ...”

Safety alert! Earworms are contagious. Because there are some songs nearly everyone knows. “It’s a small world, after all …” The earworm contagion spreads by word of mouth, or hear of ear. All you gotta do is mention a song to someone. Oh, hey, did you know Billy Ray Cyrus sings, “And if you break my heart, my achy breaky heart …”? Yeah, he’s got the stickiest song in the world, as well as the sickest daughter. Just sayin’.

But good news, people. Williams says there are earworm cures. The cures are magic songs you can sing, to get the earworm out of your head. And just how is the cure any better than the original earworm?

Anyway, earworm cures tend to be slow songs. And Williams says some folks swear by the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen.” “God save our gracious queen, God save our noble queen. God save the queen. Long may ...” Shoot, that’s all I can remember. Maybe that is why it’s a good earworm cure. Because you get so frustrated trying to remember the words, you start to swear at the tune, as well as swear by it. Of course we never swear. And we are not going to that damn Urban Dictionary site ever again.

Scientists at Western Washington University have suggested doing crosswords, unscrambling anagrams or puzzling out Sudokus as an earworm cure. They say doing moderately difficult tasks will occupy your brain, so it can’t sing. Yeah, well, some of us are so numbers-impaired, we’d rather sing “Achy Breaky Heart” over and over, than be subjugated to Sudoku. “And if you break my heart …”

Earworms can be toxic. Really. Here is a fact that will clear out all the musical cobwebs from your brain. Jean Harris, who murdered the Scarsdale Medical Diet guru, Dr. Herman Tarnower, claimed she had the song “Put the Blame on Mame” stuck in her head for 33 years. So after 33 years, she figured she had a perfect alibi — putting the blame on Mame — and she murdered her boyfriend. According to Wikipedia. Which is almost as reliable as Urban Dictionary.

Toxic earworms. Good to know. So “Don’t go breakin’ my heart …,” “… my achy breaky heart ...” Oh, and BTW, ask.com says Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” is one of the wormiest earworms around. “B-B-B-Benny and the Jets …” Soooo, got a song stuck in your head?

Hope is Our Town’s resident comedian and waxes poetic (and sometimes not-so poetic) about the lighter side of current events in Dickinson, the Oil Patch and the world.

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