Music, Language, and Earworms

This post is by Florence Hazrat
(Florence is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of English at the University of St Andrews)

I’m writing my thesis on refrains in the sixteenth century and, having spent more than two years with them now, it’s hard not to be gushing about how much they know about our brains! I want to follow up the earlier posts on a few things refrains are and do: change-in-sameness, for instance, or the creation of new knowledge through repetition, as well as the perception of time through formal patterns. I also want to add another dimension connected to these issues, which is music, and it’s telling that the Dunbar poem ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’ has a musical background, plucking its refrain from the chanted liturgy.
      The link between music and language is a thorny issue, but refrains have a foot in both camps, so this is something that needs to be thought about a bit, even though we can’t draw hard-and-fast conclusions. It is repetition, after all, which lifts language into music, as the following experiment shows.
      When the voice recording of neuro-psychologist Diana Deutsch got accidentally stuck on a loop, she discovered the speech-to-song effect: the random phrase “sometimes behave so strangely” started to sound like song, merely owing to the repetition. Here’s a description of the experiment and the recording too. It’s magic, have a listen here.
      Repetition, refrain, poetry, and music, both instrumental and vocal, are intimately entwined. Most of all, the refrain means speaking or singing together. You don’t need to know the whole lyrics of a song in order to participate, the repeated snippet is enough. We can all immediately burst into the refrain of the Queen anthem ‘We will rock you’, but who knows what’s happening in between? Refrains help us to stomp, and clap, and sing together; we transcend our individual bodies and take part in something greater than ourselves. We are what musicologists call , swept away by the communal activity.
      What makes refrains in particular so sticky? So much so that we cannot not join in, that our minds cannot forget them? Surely, you have had that sometimes maddening experience of having a song stuck in your head. And was it the refrain, perhaps? An “earworm”? That is, the same tune looping and looping itself like a worm through your mind’s ear. Cognitive scientists call earworms “involuntary musical imagery”, spontaneous silent music in the head.
      Earworms are being studied by , who have researched such information like frequency, duration, and pleasantness. Most people, it turns out, actually like experiencing the uncontrollable emergence of earworms for a while. This is the social context of memorable song snatches, but quite what makes them so sticky is still not certain. What is certain is that there is something catching our ears and minds, something which advertisement jingles make their own (think of the big yellow M, ‘I’m lovin’ it’), but songs and poems, too.
      It’s the combination of words and sounds which is especially adhesive. Refrains often possess just this jingle quality, and come to represent the piece they originate from: the brain consciously stores only a snapshot of the song, a particularly distinctive snapshot (the refrain, of course), which triggers the whole song. .
      While jingles are particularly effective when they knit words to sounds, the refrain doesn’t even need language which “means” anything: for recognition purposes, even (or especially?) nonsense syllables serve the trick. The medieval chronicle poem Brut tells us that King Edward II liked to go from place to place in his bark, and that ‘maidenes made a songe therof…with hevalog, rombylogh’ which probably goes back to the “rumbling” or splashing sound oars make on water. This became the popular refrain ‘hey ho, rumbelow’, often sung by sailors or in songs about sailing, and reminds us of the origins of refrains in work songs: singing together enables smooth co-ordination of body movement to a certain time rhythm as is necessary in rowing, weaving, or harvesting.
      Nonsense, or “non-lexical vocables” as they are called, are just easier to pronounce, take less energy. So think twice about dismissing ‘fa la la la la la la la la’ this Christmas. Not to forget the infamous ‘ummatidle, ummatiddle, ummatallyho, tallyho, followmingkathellomeday’. No kidding, it’s one of the refrain versions of a famous old ballad, ‘The Elfin Knight’. Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Scarborough Fair’ also goes back to that song, and has ‘parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme’ as refrain, which is slightly less nonsensical, if only just. Here is the first stanza of the ballad:

The Elfin knight stands on yon hill,
Blow, blow, blow winds, blow
Blowing his horn both loud and shrill.
And the wind has blown my plaid away.

The second and the fourth lines are refrains, and never change throughout the song which is about the impossible requests the Elfin Knight makes to his human lover, and vice versa (for instance to weave a shirt and ‘wash it in yonder well,/ Where the dew never wet, nor the rain ever fell’).
      Owing to this sameness of the refrain, one might expect it to be boring, or not really adding anything new to the poem. That this is not so becomes clear in the discussion in previous posts, but I think what’s going on here is more connected to the musical qualities of the refrain and its repetitiveness, so let’s see what effects repetition in instrumental music has, and what that implies for repetition in songs (poems that may be sung, words that are amenable to music).


In her recent book On Repeat, How Music Plays the Mind Elizabeth Margulis wonders about precisely that: why does repetition in music give us so much pleasure? Why is it that we can listen to the same song over and over again, for years and years? And why is repetition of phrases – why are refrains – such an intrinsic part of any musical piece, be it a large-scale symphony or a simple lullaby? A repetitive pattern in music, , ‘makes it possible to encode musical phrases as fluid sequences that can be imagined without effort’.
      It’s not that our minds merely skip over what we have already encountered; it’s rather that repetition sets it free to roam before and after the repetition, to remember what was and to anticipate what is to come. Because the repeated chunk of music has already been saved in our memory, its recurrence can be processed with less energy, can be re-played rather than re-saved, so our attention starts to rove, and get to know the immediate environment of the repetition. The mind contemplates itself, so that particularly “thickening” full experiences of the music are crowding around repetition.
      In this way, the seemingly sequential arts of music and poetry become less linear, more circular or spiral-like, unfixing temporal order. Which links up to the earlier realization about identical refrains acquiring new meaning at every repetition. Our additional attention, freed by the ease of processing something familiar, enables engagement with the lines before and after the refrain. It enables the question ‘what does it mean this time?’ and ‘what does it mean in terms of the earlier occurrences’ and ‘what will it mean the next time it appears?’.
      Linear time collapses, or at least becomes porous: whenever our minds in the present predict the future based on the past (all the time, really), this kind of roving cognition happens. The refrain, in music and poetry, has known this for ever, and it makes use of our mental flexibility to create layers of meaning in very simple ways. From a figure of speech, a primarily pattern-making figure, the refrain turns out to be a figure of thought like a metaphor, letting us understand something in terms of something else.
      So to recap – repetition is at the root of the refrain’s behaviour and effect, and it links music and poetry. Refrains are catchy and hook themselves into our ear canal and brain circuits. Songs use that stickiness by nursing a sophisticated sense of time through the refrain’s liberation of mental attention backwards and forwards.
      And don’t forget that, should you ever be plagued by an earworm, you could take Mark Twain’s example and pass it on like the flu: in the short story Punch, Brothers, Punch, Twain describes how he miraculously frees himself from a particularly annoying jingle by hooking it into the ear of a friend who promptly goes mad:

How did I finally save [my friend] from an asylum? I took him to a neighboring university and made him discharge the burden of his persecuting rhymes into the eager ears of the poor, unthinking students. How is it with them, now? The result is too sad to tell.

Clifford Rose, Neurology of Music (London, 2010), p. 7.
Lassi Liikkanen, ‘Music in everymind: Commonality of involuntary musical imagery’ in Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition (2008), and Victoria Williamson et al, ‘Sticky Tunes: How Do People React to Involuntary Musical Imagery?’, PLoS ONE 9(1): e86170.
See Manfred Clynes, Music, Mind, and Brain: The Neuropsychology of Music (New York, 1982), p. 40.
Elizabeth Margulis, On Repeat, How Music Plays the Mind (Oxford, 2014), p. 66.

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