Thursday, December 12, 2013

Earworm: A Cry for Help

[photo credit: morgantj]

Until recently, I have never had a problem with earworms. I don’t know why. 
Since, when I have to choose, I favor melody above all other musical parameters—both in my composing and in my listening—one would think I would be particularly susceptible to these little pests, if it's true that most of them are melodically-based.
But until recently, I had a simple, effective strategy for fighting back. I called it the “riff antibody” treatment. Here’s how it worked: when an ear worm struck, I intentionally hummed a different tune for a bit. Like magic, the ear worm was overridden (or overwritten?), and that was that. 
Two of my most effective riff antibodies were the opening guitar from David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel,” and the synth part from Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” I have no idea why either of those worked. I don't even like the tunes they come from (anymore). Yet my musical taste didn’t seem to be a factor in the treatment. The riff antibodies never stayed in my head after I deployed them. It was like they knew that their whole purpose in life was to destroy a thing I didn't want to hear, and then vanish themselves.
Lately, however, I’ve been getting ear worms that are more resistant. Many of you know I have been the keyboardist and music director at a Lutheran church here in Portland for almost five years now. It’s a great gig in many ways. It has made me a better musician (and especially a better sight reader). It pays well. It's steady work. About three quarters of the music I get to play is really lovely: old hymns and spirituals. I also get to improvise a bit. Plus, the congregation is very respectful of the fact that I’m agnostic. I give them major props for that.
The other twenty-five percent of the music, though—the music that isn’t old hymns and spirituals—is contemporary Christian music. It’s really horrid stuff, in my professional opinion. As luck would have it, that’s where the new ear worms are coming from. 
Perhaps the problem is that I have been doing the gig too long. Or perhaps it’s that all the offending songs are so similar and predictable. In any case, I have been struggling to keep them out of my head when I'm not actually performing them (and sometimes even when I am). For the first time in my adult life, the riff antibodies are no help.
And so I turn to you, dear reader. Do you have your own earworm remedy? Or do I just need to get a new gig?

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