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by Brenda Looper | July 19, 2023 at 3:46 a.m.
Brenda Looper

It's still hot, and that makes me more easily distracted.

In my office, I keep the lights off and the door closed or only slightly ajar while I'm working to limit distractions (believe me, it's hard to shut me up around people I know, and I will take every opportunity to procrastinate). At home or elsewhere, it's much the same, though I generally don't have to deal with people. I don't have the TV or any music on because I'll get caught up in whatever's playing.

I discovered in grad school that if I listened to music when I studied, it had to be instrumental only, and usually classical. Though I would often hum parts of pieces I loved, it wasn't as dangerous to my concentration as would be something from, say, The Who, The Doors, Queen, They Might Be Giants or other artists. They didn't invite earworms. "Baba O'Riley," "People Are Strange," "We Are the Champions," "Istanbul" and other such songs can totally wreck my concentration.

And of course, the Word Nerd has to talk about the etymology of earworm because, well, it just makes her happy.

Merriam-Webster's Words at Play blog notes, "'Earworm' is centuries old in English, but the word first referred to the earwig; later, it referred to a destructive pest known to infest ears of corn. Meanwhile, Germans started using the parallel word 'Ohrwurm' to refer to an infectious tune."

In England and throughout Europe, there was a belief that earwigs (a type of insect) crawled into people's ears, which resulted in "earworm." (Germans referred to earwigs as ohrwurm.) In the 19th century, the earwig meaning faded and earworm instead referred to a moth larva that burrowed into corn, tomatoes, tobacco and cotton bolls.

"Meanwhile, in Germany," the blog wrote, "the parallel term ohrwurm still referred to the earwig, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s, those inventive Germans began applying the name for this pest which supposedly burrowed into your ear to a piece of music that wouldn't get out of your head.

"We English speakers stumbled across this German use in the early 1980s and we fell in love with it. We took the meaning of Ohrwurm and applied it to the English word that matched the German one word for word: earworm. Though this use of earworm first showed up in English in the early 1980s, it was popularized by Stephen King."

Like I need another reason to admire Stephen King. I still have such vivid images in my mind from reading "Firestarter," "Misery," and so many of his other novels and short story/novella collections, even not having read them in a while. The kind of writing that sticks with you (in a good way) is something so many aspire to, but most fall short of (myself definitely included).

Nicolas Slonimsky, a Russian-born American musicologist, composer and conductor, might have been the first to decipher what makes certain tunes irresistible, wrote Maria Konnikova in 2014 in The New Yorker; he released his insights in the 1947 book "Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns," which had great influence on musicians like John Coltrane.

"Slonimsky didn't have a specific term for the types of compulsively catchy melodies he created, but one came into being," wrote Konnikova, crediting German psychiatrist Cornelius Eckert, who "described such tunes as 'Ohrwürmer'--earworms. ... While there still isn't a strict definition of what constitutes an earworm, it is generally considered to be a constant loop of 15 to 20 seconds of music lodged in your head for at least a few hours, if not days--or, in severe cases, months."

Story of my life, really. "Bohemian Rhapsody," though, is probably the only earworm I don't mind, though it does make people stare when I start singing it out loud or dancing to music only I hear. One more reason to be a hermit.

David Silbersweig, the Stanley Cobb Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told the Harvard Gazette in 2021, "There are certain musical characteristics that make songs more likely to become earworms, such as if the piece is repetitive, if there is a longer duration of certain notes, if intervals between the notes are smaller. Also, songs that trigger some kind of emotional charge, either consciously or not, or songs associated with a particular memory, can often be the ones that get stuck in your head. ... What happens is that connections in our brains involving these regions get 'stuck,' resulting in an automatic playing out of musical memories."

Silbersweig suggests distraction as one way to get rid of an earworm. Uh, yeah, distraction is the problem.

Most of the time I let the earworm run its course because there's little harm unless it's accompanied by loss of consciousness or confusion, tremors, seizures, etc., which could indicate serious medical conditions.

I'm satisfied that the vast majority of my earworms (and those of others) are benign. However, when it comes to certain artists, I may be led to beg for anything by any other artist to drive the earworm out before it drives me out of my mind.

I'm on a short thread some days, especially when it's hot.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at Read her blog at

Print Headline: Name that tune


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