It Follows Me Through the Park

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – My alarm clock (the iPhone channeling Gerald McBoing-Boing) goes off at six. As I test the bedroom temperature with my nose, Linda starts singing in my ear:

     Silver threads and golden needles cannot mend this heart of mine…

It doesn’t matter whether I get up or not; she’s staying with me for a while. Which is fine. The lyrics of the song are captivating, depressing, and defiant; and I remember Ms. Ronstadt as a most captivating young lady, as well. Also, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” is preferable by far to the other lines I often wake up to:

     And would it have been worth it, after all,

     After the cups, the marmalade, the tea

     Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me…

They’re called ear worms, and everybody I know, as far as I can tell, gets them — a set of verse, lyrics, or music that bubbles through the mind and usually refuses to go away. It’s not an American phenomenon; in Germany it’s called “Ohrwurm,” in France, “ver de l’orielle.” It’s a global endemic. But that doesn’t make it any easier to bear when one’s got you by the ears and won’t let go – I don’t want your lonely mansion with a tear in every room.

I mentioned the situation to my kids in Arkansas during our twice-weekly Zoom call and, for some reason, my son knew where to look for information. The links arrived this morning.

The first link was to a University of Arkansas research journal and an article titled “The Effect of Motor Involvement and Melody Truncation on Involuntary Musical Imagery.” It was the kind of reading that dissuaded me from pursuing advanced degrees. Although the writer helpfully reduced the experience to the acronym INMI, I found myself wading through sentences like “…the introspective persistence of an auditory experience, including one constructed from components drawn from long-term memory, in the absence of direct sensory instigation of the experience.”

Right! Got it. Apparently, about 90 percent of people tested in the research have at least one ear worm a week; musicians and non-musicians are equally affected; and in case anybody’s interested, more research is needed. Shakespeare long ago mentioned the 10 percent who don’t get them: “The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.” So, cherish your sweet sounds if you get them.

A much easier-to-read article on the subject, from “Today,” is much more helpful, even if only because it’s written in what’s called “more accessible language.” And it gives an example of an external ear worm: a toddler who constantly tells Alexa to play “Baby Shark,” ‘til her parents are about to lose their minds. It also lists the one hundred most popular. I’m delighted that I’ve never heard of any of them.

I also found out why Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles have stuck like cockleburs in my head, ready to nibble at the edge of consciousness with no apparent provocation. The most persistent tunes are upbeat, which “Silver Threads” certainly is. Second, they’re keyed in a popular range. The greatest part of Bing Crosby’s popularity was that he sang in an easy range. It’s hard to imagine “The Star-Spangled Banner” ever becoming an ear worm; “America, the Beautiful”, however, once accompanied me as I rowed down an Adirondack lake just after the attacks of September eleventh,

Linda sings “Silver Threads” in G – my key – and you need only six chords – you can get away with three – to play along. It follows me through the park and pops up in the car when the radio is off. The danger is that it may pop out, as well as up, and people who don’t know me may reach for their phones when they come across me and Kiki in the park. It’s kind of hard to bop while leaning on a cane and wearing crampons, but as long as she keeps singing, I’m bopping.