Medical Mysteries of Music

Five fascinating medical mysteries of music

[This is my weekly music column for Global News. -AC]

As far as evolutionary biologists can determine, there was no need for humans to develop music. There are theories, of course. Is our capacity for music a side effect of developing language? Did it result from an attempt to mimic birdsong? No one really knows.

Yet our brains seem to be hardwired for music in so many wonderful and mysterious ways. Here are five examples of the strange relationship between music and the squishy grey stuff in our skulls.

1. Earworms

The following message is scrawled above a urinal in a downtown Toronto restaurant: “I’ve had Elton John’s Rocket Man going through my head all day. And now you do, too.” (Sorry about that. I know you can’t stop thinking of the phrase “I think it’s going to be a long, long time” now.)

Earworms, the name given to what happens when you have a song stuck in your head, is a well-documented neurological phenomenon. Its first mention in literature seems to be an 1876 story by Mark Twain, who tells the story about a musical phrase that can only be struck from one’s head by passing it on to another, like some disease or spirit. The word earworm itself first shows up in a novel entitled Flyawayby Desmond Bagley published in 1978.

Why do these musical phrases get stuck in our head? It seems that the portion of the brain tasked with processing audio gets caught in a loop, the neurological equivalent of a stuck hourglass or a spinning beachball on your computer. News-Medical.Net explains that this part of the left primary auditory cortex is like computer RAM that contains enough capacity for 15-20 seconds, which explains the length of earworms.

According to the University of St. Andrews, the portion of the song that gets stuck is dependent on five addiction factors: surprise, predictability, rhythmic repetition, melodic potency, and the listener’s feelings about the tune.

So how can one force quit/ctrl-alt-del an earworm of your head? Chewing gum seems to help for some reason. Doing Sudoku or a crossword puzzle does the trick for some.

But even that may not be enough for people with truly debilitating earworms. They may be prescribed ADHD drugs which may provide relief.

Continue reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38536 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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