Monday, March 12, 2012


It began with an earworm.
See the dark night has come down on us. The world is living in it's dreams.
These words, sung by Gerry Rafferty over a deep and constant bass line and a gauzy Irish pop accordion melody are part of the opening bars to his song, The Ark.  This song had been swimming around in my head for weeks in what was beginning to feel like an endless loop.

Although it probably had actually lasted for only about three or four days, this is an eternity to someone like me who does not listen to music on a regular basis.  It was especially annoying because I had not actually heard the song for several years.

But there it was, boring out the inside of my brain--a horrible contradiction in terms if ever I heard one--every time I walked down the sidewalk or a set of steps, brushed my teeth or performed any sort of activity rhythmic enough to lend itself to a miserable four-bar soundtrack.  Over and over and over again.

Now, if either Reader is not familiar with the phenomenon I am referring to--the earworm--you are fortunate indeed, but I'll wager that the other Reader knows of the curse and may even be so afflicted from time to time.  Would that I could claim to have never experienced it, I am nonetheless grateful that the condition is only intermittent.  I cannot imagine the frustration that some kind of permanent condition--tinnitus--would have on me.  The sheer tenacity of this particular repeating sound loop was rendering me quite anxious to be rid of it.

I have been afflicted by earworms before, of course, and I am only able to call them that because I heard the term on a wonderful radio program called RadioLab, where they discussed the topic in some detail.  In the course of a twenty-minute program, the hosts of the show talked about causes, but since no one really knows the why, they dealt more with how--as in, how to get rid of an earworm.

It comes down to two methods:

1) Listen to the song.  Your brain obviously wants to hear it, so just give in.  Once you listen to it, it will go away.

2) Listen to another song.  Your brain is obviously stuck in a loop, so it needs to be reset.  Once you listen to something else, it will 'record' over the earworm and it will go away.

Way #1 suggests that there is a reason that your brain is stuck on the song.  It's like craving salt when you've been exercising.  It's your body's way of telling you that something is missing.  Something is needed.  Like a song.  Just go ahead and find it and listen to it already!

Way #2 suggests that your brain is just like a tape recorder and that you can just 'wipe out' an earworm by replacing it with another, equally catchy set of notes.  Your brain is just stuck like a car with a slipping clutch trying to get up a hill.  It just needs a little shove to get it started.  So go ahead and whip out the earphones and listen to something already!

Without getting into the philosophical implications of the two methods, I will say that what both have in common is the idea that to get rid of an earworm, one needs to listen to some music.

This poses a problem for me.  I don't listen to music.

Now, that's a pretty radical statement and will require some explanation as well as some qualifications.  First of all, it's not strictly true.  I do actually listen to music.  In some ways, in our time, (not just our culture any more) it is impossible not to listen to music.

Music is everywhere, and I don't just mean all the people with earbuds and earphones in and on their heads all the time.  I mean that even in public places--perhaps even especially--music is ubiquitous.  It is impossible to escape.  In every store and every restaurant and gas station in the world, music is in the  background.

Sometimes the music so loud that it seems like it's actually in the foreground, but I am sure that's just me.  I am particularly sensitive to music, so I am unlike most people, who don't actually hear the music they are 'listening' to.  This is because music is, for them, a sort of background noise, a soundtrack for their lives, if you will.

I am generalizing, of course, but it seems that for the great majority of people, music is almost like a requirement for activity of any kind, physical or mental.  People use their digital music players all the time, when they run, exercise, work and work out.  Many people also listen to music while they work, whether they have an active job, like in a kitchen, or a passive job at a desk.

Why is this?  I think it's a modern problem, one that predates the digital world, but not by much.  In many ways, the rise of the recording industry and proliferation of music forms and styles in the previous century was a prefigurement of the nature and pace of twenty-first century life.

The 'need' for music seems to be tied to the contemporary 'need' for multitasking.  It's another way of saying that work--or working out, as the case may be--is so boring that it requires an other source of stimulus to make the activity pleasurable and perhaps even possible.

I am not one of those people.  My relationship with music, if I may call it that, is stuck in a mode that even predates recorded music.  I simply cannot treat music casually, and this can cause a problem.  My reaction to hearing music is stronger and deeper than it ought to be.  My problem is, I can't help but actually listen to music.

In fact I actually cannot imagine not listening to it.  That is, I find it distracting at the very least, and often disturbing, to hear so-called 'background' music that I cannot listen to.  It almost literally drives me crazy when I can 'hear' music that is so faint that I can only actually hear the bass beat, or so loud that that's all I can hear.  Or it can be so repetitive (Xmas) that I have heard it a million times already, or so just so plain garbled that no one can actually hear it.  Oddly, to me anyway, when 'heard' this way, music ceases to be a source of comfort and actually becomes a source of pain.

Sadly too, even when I take the time to listen to music, it can bring up discomfort and pain in a way that nothing else is capable of doing.  Music, alone of all the arts, is capable of making me cry.

Images can make me smile or laugh, get angry or even feel sad, but they cannot make me cry.  In a movie, for example, the images are moving, but it is the music that brings the water to my eyes.

It's not that I hate to cry, or that I cannot cry.  Perhaps I have some deep psychological reason for wanting to suppress my tears.  Whatever the reason, I have to say that I just do not cry very often.

I did not cry when I heard that Bill died (I did throw up, though) and didn't shed a tear until I saw his body in the funeral home.  I didn't cry when Lynda died, though I admit to shedding a few tears alone in the car out in front of Christopher House when she was so critically ill.  Even then, it wasn't a flood of tears but a welling up, a kind of fullness that cannot be contained and has to escape in a series of gentle heaves and a soft application of hot wet eyes.

I didn't cry when Pierre died, though I felt I needed to.  I recall collapsing on my knees and weeping softly, but it wasn't the world-ending voice-ravaging primal scream like a scene from a movie.  It felt like that though.  The feeling--that moment-- was both obligatory and inescapable, but it was also (thank God) limited in scope and finite in length.

After that moment, it seemed as if my tear ducts had simply dried up.  They have lost their function because there is no need.  Tears are meaningless if there is no emotion to back them up, and I have by now, some three years on, so carefully restrained that emotion that tears seem superfluous.

They are not, of course.  My tears are still there.  My tear ducts still work.  I know this because last week, I listened to some music to rid myself of the earworm, and I cried--really wept--for the first time in many years.

It was after work, and I was headed home much later than usual.  I had stayed late to participate in a little talent show that the students from our program put on every year.  It's a bit of a spoof on Miss America, and as the contestants participate in the various rounds including talent, swimsuit and interviews.  It was a delightful show.  The audience and judges (of which I was one) got a lot of laughs.  The kids are beautiful and funny, talented and especially brave to get up and compete in front of their peers.

After the event, I headed back to my car.  Back came the earworm.  Each step I took reminded me of that song.

See the dark night has come down on us...

I decided to do something about it.

The world is living in its dreams...

I took out my music player and earbuds.

Time to go down to the waterside...

I plugged them into me and started listening.  Way 1.

To find the ship to take us on the way...

I started crying before I got in the car.  I listened to The Ark, but I didn't stop there.  I let the album roll, through Baker Street, and Mattie's Rag and even Midnight Train.  But it was the last song, the saddest song on the album, Whatever's Written in Your Heart, that really got to me.

The wave of grief that hit me was like a tsunami.  It was so large and so dark and so overwhelming that I was lost in an instant, swept up and carried along like the tiny bit of protoplasm in a maelstrom of life and death that I truly am.

I don't really remember the drive home.

The release was too vast for me to take, and my brain was overwhelmed.  Like a character in some Victorian novel, I literally swooned and lost my consciousness and myself.

By the time I got home, my face was wet with tears.  I had been heaving and sobbing like I was a two-year old child, and in many ways, that's where I was.  Thankfully, I found myself at home.  I stumbled inside.  Valery was comforting and helpful.  In her arms I began to find my way back out of the dark.  I must admit, it took several days of virtual climbing to get out of the pit I had inadvertently fallen into, but the fact that I am writing this is an indication of my recovery.

I am thinking perhaps that this incident has finally altered my perception of music.  I am hopeful that this means I can again listen to music without fear of some unseen trap.  I am hopeful that like most folks, I can enjoy music as a means of escape and relaxation.  However and whenever that works, we'll see.

For now, I am grateful for one thing.  That damn earworm is gone.

1 comment:

valgal said...

so i am getting you some sXsw music tix!! music, here he comes!!! time for sardine-ing of the bodies, which is EVER so much more fun than earworming...