I’m in the middle of my 4 week musical fast, which is being done for a BBC Radio 4 Documentary Giving up Music for Lent (broadcast 16th March, 4pm). What is happening to the tunes swirling around my head is fascinating.
Repetitive tunes that get stuck in the brain are called earworms. Mine mostly take on two forms. First, a word or event triggers an association with a tune, for example Mel Brookes was on the radio this morning and I immediately heard Springtime for Hitler from The Producers. Research by Victoria Williamson and colleagues have shown that this is a common form. Victoria’s research has shown that short, catchy tunes are more likely to stick (e.g. good hook, simple sing-along-ability). The second type of earworm I have is bits of music that I’ve intensively learnt for the saxophone. Unsurprisingly, repeat a phrase hundreds of times in practice, and it gets lodged in memory.
When I started trying to avoid music, my interior Jukebox seemed to go into overdrive. It was like my brain was trying to compensate for the lack of external music. What I found in those early days is I had to try hard not to start humming along because I was desperate to externalize the sound. When I let a few notes out by accident, I also noticed how much more satisfying it was than just imaging the tune inside my head alone. Boris Kleber and colleagues have researched the difference between overt and imagined singing by getting classical singers to perform arias in a brain scanner. They found some differences in the areas of the brain that were activated depending on whether the subjects imagined or actually sung the tune. I’ve been thinking about why it appeared to be more satisfying to vocalize the tunes, and I wonder if it as simple as the stimulus being more potent when it involves more of the body.
Over the first week of the musical fast, my inner musical voice died down, and now I only occasionally hear tunes in my head. I’m now wondering whether I should try and completely suppress this internal jukebox. Would I be able to do this? What might happen?