Can’t Get You Out of My Head: Melody and the Brain

For about six months now, I have had a song in my head. It’s called “Cousins,” by the NYC indie-rockers Vampire Weekend. Vampire Weekend are not even a band I consider myself to like very much, though having one of their songs squatting in my synapses for nearly half a year has forced me to question the validity of this belief. I feed my brain a tremendous amount of music—sitting in my chair at work, I will often make it through about five or six albums in their entirety before noon, and that doesn’t even count the music I pipe into my ears on the subway there and back. And yet, no matter what other music might momentarily take possession of my mind, “Cousins” always eventually resurfaces, like some grinning cartoon character that refuses to be obliterated. Take two minutes and twenty-five seconds to listen to the exuberant little song below, if you haven’t heard it, to get an idea of what I am talking about:

As far as afflictions go, this “Cousins” curse isn’t so bad. I began to notice something, though, as the song kept wafting through my mental hallways: that this wasn’t a scrap of melody I couldn’t rid myself of—this was literally an entire song, living whole in my head. When “Cousins” cues itself up on my mental reel-to-reel, the entire song plays—whatever part of my brain is in charge of deriving pleasure from the music it plays itself demands to hear the first verse, then the chorus, and then the surf guitar line afterward. And then the next verse. I am locked in for the duration.

Luckily for me, the mental replay of “Cousins” doesn’t demand a whole lot of my time. If I had a similar problem with, say, Mahler’s Third, I would probably have to be institutionalized. Still, it got me thinking. Most of us think of the phenomenon of the “earworm” in terms of three- or four-note sequences: inane, catchy jingles like “row, row, row your boat” or “plop, plop, fizz, fizz.” But there are as many ways to be caught up inside of a melody as there are melodies themselves, and each of them loops itself into our internal hardwiring in a different way. The manifold ways this can happen are endlessly fascinating to me: Why does the brain seize hold of certain fragments? Why does it worry away at whole passages when I am trying to make dinner or fill out spreadsheets?

As a music critic, feeling my own mind chewing away noisily at a piece of music can be one of the most viscerally satisfying intellectual experiences I know. It can also be maddening or distracting. But above all, it always inspires wonder in me: What exactly is my unconscious mind trying to figure out? What’s going on in the back vaults of my mind as I move through daily life? Sufficiently intrigued, I did a little research, consulted friends and colleagues, and went rummaging around in my own synapses to come up with some partial answers.

The smallest cells of music that get snagged in the mind’s filter tend to be the most stereotypical examples of “earworms”—looping, maddening, well-defined musical phrases that cue up, stop, and start over again like a skipping record no one is tending to. They tend to last about ten to fifteen seconds—which, as Daniel J. Levitin notes in This Is Your Brain On Music, is about the time limit built into our auditory short-term memory. This is called “echoic” memory for a reason—it’s the same low-level playback mechanism that enables you to repeat back a phone number that’s just been read to you.

Sometimes the snippet is even shorter—in some cases, it’s nothing more than three seconds. I think here of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” one of the more immediate pop tunes in recent memory. The only part my brain needs to conjure the rush of the song in its entirety—the only part that I need to plug into to experience that little internal rush of endorphins—is the opening of the chorus. Just “SINCE U BEEN GONNNNE!” That’s all, that’s it. It’s like hitting a button for a pellet. What’s more, it seems to provide the same guilty-pleasure goose pimples when it is playing exclusively in my own mind as it does when reaching my ears through speakers. In a 2005 study called “Mental Concerts“, McGill University neuroscientist Robert J. Zatorre and Andrea R. Halpern of Bucknell confirmed this to be neurologically true: our mental playbacks, they found, stimulate the same auditory cortical areas of the brain that are involved in listening to actual music. The version of the song playing in our minds, in other words, is just as powerful, for us, as the one living out there in the “real world.” There is something lovely to me about this notion: listening to music, looked at this way, is merely a refresher course, a way to fill in the missing lines and sharpen the detail for our inner concerts, which we can carry with us anywhere we please.

Leading with Kelly Clarkson might strike some of you as odd. I can relate. For whatever reason, Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” was the very first example my brain fed me when I began reflecting on catchy song fragments, and I was just as surprised to find it lurking so close to the surface of my mind as you might have been to see it here. I probably hadn’t heard the song in question since 2007, and yet my brain gave it right back to me as if it were a pair of keys I’d left at the front desk the night before. Our musical databases are like that—highly situational, operating according to an obscure logic that we can only attempt to fathom in retrospect. In Musicophilia, a fascinating book about the complicated relationship between music and the brain, the neurologist Oliver Sacks relates the story of a patient suffering “musical hallucinations.” Often, cues from her environment would dictate that day’s mental soundtrack; if she baked a French apple cake, she found that she was later incessantly humming “Frère Jacques.” If she walked past a church, “O Come All Ye Faithful” would pop unbidden into her mind and refuse to leave for hours. Another patient tells Sacks of hearing the same piece of music only when he went to mow the lawn: “I get a motif starting up in my head which I recognize as only ever happening when the mower is on….It’s evident that the sound of the mower stimulated my brain to select precisely that composition.”

My own mind does this to me all the time. Early in the day, when the morning’s first cup of coffee has hit and the promise of the day seems great, I feel myself buzzing with energy, shuffling through tasks with an exaggerated intensity and walking around more quickly; when I’m like this, I almost always hear the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, with its argumentative, inexorable forward thrust, bubbling its way through me, buoying my sense of purposefulness. The movement unfurls steadily in my mind without interruption, for at least three straight minutes, sometimes longer—my brain keeps following the four-note “fate” motif as it climbs higher and higher. The unbroken continuum of the Beethoven mirrors my unbroken thread of attention—later in the day, as my attention flags, my brain will dissolve into a thousand chaotic and competing musical fragments. But for singular, obsessive purpose, my brain instinctively hones in on Beethoven’s Fifth.

I sometimes wonder if I am subconsciously using this movement, and following its mounting, twisting development in my mind, as a focusing tool in and of itself, as a way of locking myself into a state of continuous concentration. Whereas a broken-record earworm tends to pull you out of the moment, an unfurling piece of music can restore mental equilibrium and clear the mind, like an “Om” with a few hundred more syllables. Sacks, again in Musicophilia, also links following a piece of music with focused concentration with his heartbreaking case study of a man who, after a debilitating brain infection, was left with a seven-second memory span—for everything except music, which located him firmly in the Now like nothing else did. The man had no recall of anything past 1965, but he could sit down and play his way through a piano sonata from start to finish and even conduct a choir with zero difficulty. Sacks writes eloquently about the orienting power of music in the mind: “When we ‘remember’ a melody, it plays in our mind; it becomes newly alive….We recall one tone at a time and each tone entirely fills our consciousness, yet simultaneously relates it to the whole. It is similar when we run or walk or swim—we do so one step, one stroke at a time, yet each step is an integral part of the whole, the kinetic melody of running or swimming.” I often feel, on a small scale, that my mind has cued up Beethoven for me with a similar purpose, to weed out clamor and establish a continuum.

Among friends and colleagues I spoke to in preparation for this article, others echoed this idea of centering. Mike Powell, a writer for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, and other places, commented to me: “Earworms have a kind of primal function for me, like a mantra. They have ‘meanings’ per se, but the meanings empty out as you repeat them, until it’s just kind of a placeholder for the moment. They play a real pre-intellect, early-times role in my life. It also makes me think about bird songs, or animal calls: these brief, constantly repeated things that signify that a certain creature is there—a marker of identity or something. Overall though, I’d just say that I find the experience of having something stuck in my head really wonderful—it sort of puts the forward motion of my mind on pause.” Brian Howe, another Pitchfork writer, concurs, adding that the melodies that populate his head feel “more like a shape than information to me. In fact, it is a respite from information and the cognitive heavy lifting which comes with it. I may think about the content of the words, but what I feel is the warp and heft of them. And there is always something faintly lizard-brainy about that shape, like something old dredged from collective memory.”

Sometimes, your brain will start making its own mischief with these shapes. I often catch my mind acting as a cunning editor, snipping the end of a phrase so it can tie the ends together, or finding a way to mash two together to make something entirely new. Late one Saturday night a few weeks ago, for example, I had the residue of two competing song fragments still alive in my brain. One was a four-note, sighed little melody from the bridge of a song by the Baltimore band Beach House. The other was a piece of the backing track to a new Eminem song. The presence of both fragments in my head was pretty traceable—I had listened to Beach House while preparing dinner, and I had sat through the (grimly awful) new Eminem in its entirety the night before because I had to review it. The Beach House song (“10 Mile Stereo”) is in C-sharp major, while the singers on Eminem’s backing track (“Cinderella Man”) are in pentatonic B-flat major. So close, yet so far! What’s fascinating to me is what my brain, with zero input or intervention from my conscious mind, does to reconcile these two scraps of melody. The Beach House, which already has a pretty watery pitch center, is discreetly knocked a few cents down, and the Eminem bit pitched a few cents up, until the two fragments meet each other, in my head, somewhere in the general vicinity of good old C major. My brain then fuses them so that they feed into each other, forming a new, looping melody that doesn’t exist anywhere but in my own mind, which has fashioned something reasonably complete-sounding from the disparate bits of music I have fed it. I have to wonder if this is the sort of process mash-up artists like Greg Gillis (who records as Girl Talk) go through when they are matching up two utterly unrelated songs: Are they pursuing the recombinant dreams of their own internal jukebox?

This is an obsessive music-lover’s conundrum; the more music we saturate ourselves with, the more plugged-in and susceptible our brains are to the pull of the musical input. It is a feedback loop that only mounts in intensity. It is a neurologist’s question as well, and it seems that scientists are only beginning to map the labyrinthine connections, the multiple conversations across several regions of the brain, that store and replay the music in our minds. But it is also, without a doubt, a composer’s question if ever there was one. How does music entwine itself in our neural networks? What sorts of music binds itself most tightly? This goes beyond the idea of mere “catchiness” to something a lot more fundamental to human experience: When your mind embraces a piece of music, what, exactly, is it embracing?

Composer and writer (and frequent NewMusicBox contributor) Danny Felsenfeld has decided to do more than simply wonder. His “Earworm Project,” in which he solicits friends and colleagues to submit their most inescapable, brain-drillingly invasive earworms so that he may stitch a long-form work together out of all of them, is a blend of the practical, ingenious, and the slightly masochistic. “In a way, it is like inviting the vampire into the house,” Felsenfeld admits. “But I think it is good for a composer to do this from time to time: step down from your own pantheon of what’s holy and compelling and give yourself the conceptual etude of making something you like out of something you don’t.” And having logged so much one-on-one time with other people’s infectious musical materials, what has he observed? “I wish I could answer you patly here and say that I’d discovered each earworm was easily hacked into proper four-bar phrases culminating on a high note on beat 19, etc.,” Felsenfeld says. “But no such luck. I can make some obvious generalizations: most of them are in major keys, many from musicals, and most are songs that have kind of permeated the cultural listening membrane in such a way that you can know them intimately without having ever listened to them on purpose.”

His sample group naturally tended to fellow artists, composers, and writers, with whom a persistent earworm can carry a certain intimation of professional pride. It’s almost like asking a chef what they eat at 3 in the morning after a night out. Says Felsenfeld: “I am tickled that Stephen Sondheim and I share an earworm. (I almost can’t say it because the mere mention of ‘Tomorrow’ from Annie can ruin a whole night for me.) I was also amazed to hear that more people found ‘Tom’s Diner’ by Suzanne Vega to be their inescapable tune. And I am also amazed that of all the composers I know, few found their own work to stick so deeply.”

Why should it be that, out of all the music running through composers’ minds, their own creations are absent? If we’re following the logic that mental playbacks can serve some sort of calming or centering purpose, it almost makes sense that one’s own music, with its private burden of obligation, might not be welcome. There’s a sort of loopy, circuitous logic to it; maybe in the way we cannot sneak up behind and startle ourselves, we cannot write the music that lodges itself in our brains.

Or perhaps not: there is a remarkable story about Copland near the end of his life, when he was ravaged by the effects of Alzheimer’s. In Howard Pollack’s biography Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, the composer Ned Rorem is quoted on his amazement that “the elderly Aaron Copland, who drew blanks from one five-minute period to the next, was nonetheless able to conduct his half-hour Appalachian Spring from start to finish—though on leaving the stage he could not recall what he had just performed; he had been wafted by the rote, by the inertia, by the programmed kinetics of his own creation.” Shades of the man with the seven-second memory, Copland could still locate himself in the moment through music—his music, in this case, and his most resonant work.

I am oddly comforted by the wonder in Ned Rorem’s voice in that quote; if Ned Rorem is as baffled and awed by the riddle of music and mind as I am, than surely no one knows what is going on. Music in the mind remains omnipresent, but elusive; it can taunt, popping up and disappearing with a logic that seems to defy conscious wishes, mocking our desires to control our own thoughts. It can also feel like a benediction, a gift of grace to enliven an otherwise mundane or unbearable day. But, like inspiration itself, trying to track its echoes to a source is like trying to cradle sand.