Earworms and Other Things

By Virginia Parker Staat

Don’t you see, these words are an earworm. A song you can’t stop humming even after you die.
~Toby Whithouse, Doctor Who: Under the Lake

It was a silly conversation at best… I was in a checkout line at Trader Joe’s. One of the clerks opened her station, grabbed my cart, and said, “You can follow me.” It was the way she said it. I laughed and told her it sounded like an old song. She took my cue and began singing. And although it was totally out of character for me, I joined her for the line, “I will follow you, follow you wherever you may go…”

“Now that song is stuck in my head,” she said. “An earworm.”

Bless the earworms… those quirky melodies that stick in our head. We spent the rest of our time together talking about earworms. Our worst list included the song Sisters from the movie White Christmas, Who Let the Dogs Out, and Disney’s It’s a Small World ride (which literally makes you want to strafe the little characters by ride’s end). Later I discovered songs topping the “greatest ever” earworm list include Bobby McFerrin’s Be Happy; the Village People’s YMCA; the witch doctor song Ooh Ee Oo Ah Ah, Ting Tang, Walla Walla Bing Bang; We Will Rock You; and even Handel’s Hallelujah chorus from Messiah.

Any earworms out there yet?

I learned the power of music after my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s… that insidious disease that robs our loved ones of memories of even those they love best. Each time I visited her, I tried desperately to connect or stir her heart. One visit, I pushed her wheel chair to a Gospel group sing-along at the nursing home. They began with Amazing Grace. My grandmother joined in, singing each and every verse. On that day, seeing the sparkle return to her eyes for those fleeting moments, music became our connection point.

For writers, music can also be a great tool. Music can inspire us and help funnel our creativity. Music can affect the writing process much like a musical score helps a movie build emotional intensity. When we use music to match the mood we are trying to create in our writing, we can often write more powerfully. For example, if you’re writing something dramatic, listen to dramatic music like Mozart’s Requiem.

Author A.J. Humpage says, “Writing with certain types of music can increase writing productivity because it helps the writer focus the tension, the atmosphere, emotions or conflict into the writing.” Humpage suggests listening to well chosen soundtrack music from movies, matching the mood of the movie score to the scene you are writing.

I prefer listening to instrumental music when I write because songs with words tend to distract me. Occasionally, however, when I am trying to write a particular emotion that I felt deeply in the past, I go back to a favorite tune that matches the time and place. The earworm alone helps me relive the intensity of the moment I am trying to portray in my writing. The lyrics from the Trisha Yearwood’s song say it best, “The song remembers when.”

Music triggers our memories, rekindling emotions of events and places in time. Writers can use music to harness those emotions to improve our writing and increase our creativity. Bless those quirky earworms and use them to draw from your own creative well… and write.

(NOTE: If you have a friend or loved one affected by dementia, I encourage you to watch the 2014 award-winning documentary Alive Inside (or visit www.aliveinside.org). This inspiring film documents the power of music for those trapped inside their dementia and how music memories can literally bring them back to life again.)