In 1876, Mark Twain published a short comic piece entitled A Literary Nightmare (also known as Punch, Brothers, Punch!). In this fictionalised memoir, Twain describes reading a jaunty popular poem in a newspaper which then lodges in his head. The predominance of the repetitive rhythms and rhymes shred his concentration, rendering him incapable of writing. His memory becomes muddied and he is unable to organise his everyday affairs. He becomes an ineffectual, gibbering wreck. Twain read rather than heard the poem, so technically he has fallen victim to an eye-worm, yet he refers to it as a “jingle”, a word that conjures inescapable advertising singalongs in modern readers. As we know, these ditties are fiendishly designed to besiege our brains. Twain likens the jingle to an infection, which he is only able to divest by selfishly infecting another; in this case a hapless reverend. To my mind, this characterises Twain’s earworm as a curse rather than a disease, as infection can be passed on while still remaining in the host. Twain is able to transfer malediction much as the protagonists of M.R. James’ Casting the Runes can offload damnation to another.
The poem used by Twain was not composed by him: it was appropriated from an actual newspaper. It was a popular jingle much circulated and quoted at the time. Since then, it has had a life of its own, passed on like the curse Twain ascribed it to be. It has been translated into French and Latin, used in a children’s story by Robert McCloskey (where it is used to replace – or cure – an earworm contracted from a jukebox) and in 2006 it inspired the name of the bluegrass band The Punch Brothers. In 1972, the poem was set to music, cementing its status as a bone fide earworm.
Earworms – otherwise known as “sticky music”, “cognitive itch” or, in psychological parlance, “involuntary musical imagery” – have been utilised by many writers. Long before E.B. White had success with the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, he produced a short satire called The Supremacy of Uruguay. In this comic confection, the eponymous South Americans launch unmanned drones containing phonographs, which they pilot over foreign population centres with a catchy love ballad blaring from their loudspeakers. As in Twain’s tale, once the tune gains a beachhead in the brain the effects are debilitating. Minds turn to mush and urgent thoughts are crushed by the rapacious rhythm. White’s story appeared in the New Yorker in 1933, and while modern readers may be astonished by his use of drones as weapons of invasion ten years prior to the onslaught of London by doodlebugs, the story is not a critique of warfare. Instead, it is a rather snobby satire on the banality of popular culture. The irony is that the zombie nations created by the assault of pop music are not worth conquering. Uruguay inherits an empire of emptied heads.
Other short fictions in which repetitive music is used to dominate or scramble minds include Henry Kuttner’s Nothing but Gingerbread Left (1953) and Arthur C. Clarke’s The Ultimate Melody (1957). In Anna Smaill’s fantasy novel The Chimes, pure carillonic tones ringing across a city resonate with brainwaves to induce conformity. Our ears can be used to enslave us.
A more scientific approach is evident in How do ‘Earworms’ start? Classifying the Everyday Circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery. This paper, published in Psychology of Music, presents an analysis of two qualitative studies investigating how music can involuntarily lodge into our lobes via repeated exposure, memory triggers associated with a particular song, or low attention or “idling brains”. Interestingly, the researchers discovered that measurable brain activity is similar whether a song is being heard or remembered. There has been a surge of scientific investigation into this very human phenomenon. I first encountered this paper when I was venturing into Earworm but have to confess I stopped reading about halfway through. Fascinating as I found it to be, it was adversely affecting my thinking concerning the novel. Trying to apply the known scientific theories was constricting my imagination, so I joined the flat-earthers and climate change deniers and ignored the scientific evidence, placing my faith in fantasy. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
I’d like to conclude with a pleasing coincidence. The first use in English of “earworm” is credited to Desmond Bagley’s thriller, Flyaway (1978). Bagley wrote: “I fell into a blind, mindless rhythm and a chant was created in my mind what the Germans call an ‘earworm’ something that goes round and round in your head and you can’t get rid of it.” Bagley had done his homework: “earworm” probably derives from the German noun “Ohrwurm”. The plot of Flyaway concerns the search for vanished accountant Paul Billson. I can’t help pondering, is this missing person any relation to the artist who designed the hypnotic, whorling cover for Earworm, Debra Billson?
Colin Varney’s short stories have appeared in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Island and Southerly. He has written articles for The Lifted Brow and satire for Adelaide Review and Tasmanian Times. His children’s book, Jellylegs, is widely used to promote protective behaviours. He completed a Master’s in creative writing at the University of Tasmania, mentored by Danielle Wood. Earworm is his first novel.