Stuck Song Syndromehttp://www.hindu.com/thehindu/seta/2001/11/29/stories/2001112900050300.htm
HOW MANY times have you caught yourself humming a tune while ironing clothes,
washing kitchen dishes, or some chore that is rather mechanical? More often than not, you
do not realise that you are humming, and it is someone who tells you to stop bothering
with the drone. Embarrassed, you stop but the blessed tune does not go away from your
brain. It gets stuck in your brain and comes haunting. You have to make a conscious effort
to divert yourself off it, go drink a glass of water, chew on a cinnamon stick or whatever!
Indeed, researchers have named this phenomenon as the "Stuck Tune Syndrome" and
delved deep into its mysteries. My daughter Akhila e-mailed me a report on this,
published in the Los Angeles Times on October 7th, and it makes interesting and fun
reading. One Professor James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati has been studying the
stuck song syndrome in order to figure out why songs and tunes sometimes commandeer
people's thoughts. (I may add parenthetically that Akhila herself was a victim of this fever
when she, as a two year old, would hum the "O" from the Lata Mangeshkar's Meera Bhajan
"Mai Mai, O, Mai Mai")
The Society for Consumer Psychology in the US seems to have supported his research, and
in his study Kellaris surveyed 1000 students at four universities and has come out with
some generalisations, which are worth thinking about. He suggests that certain types of
tunes and songs act like "mental mosquito bites". They produce a "cognitive itch" which
makes you scratch by replaying the tune in your mind. You do so just as you scratch the
mosquito bite, as a spot reaction without thinking about it. The more you scratch, the
worse the itch gets.
In his study, Kellaris found that the students endured stuck songs or tunes for anywhere
between a few hours (55 per cent) to as long as a full day (23 per cent). Some of them (17
per cent) said that malevolent melodies presisted for several days. (On a different note, I
wonder what the procedure and protocol of his study was: did he play a bunch of tunes
ever so lightly in the background, so as to subliminally stick them on the students' minds?
Or did he ask them to catalog the number and names of the tunes that bugged their
minds during the last a few days?) Dr Kellaris then asked his subjects to identify the
stickiest songs. They appear to fall into a pattern.
What makes some songs hummable and others not? One feature appears to be the
repetitiveness of the tune. While most songs have repetitive patterns and refrains, some
rely so heavily on this feature that it becomes haunting. Kellaris has pointed out as
examples: "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" and the theme tune from "Mission Impossible". In
the Indian scene, I have found myself humming the repetitive snatches from "Ek Ladki Ko
Dekha To Aisa Laga" or "Chinna Chinna Aasai". Think about what refrain itches your brain.
A second feature seems to be musical simplicity. Kellaris points out that this is why we
tend to hum children's song often. "The ease with which a tune can be reconstructed
increases its adhesiveness"- the LA Times quotes Mr. Greg Scelsa, who composes and
performs memorable children's songs. He points to the song "If you are happy and you
know it, clap your hands". At first, you sing the line twice. Then you build on it as "If you
are happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it. If you are happy and you
know it, clap your hands". With each "happy and you know it", the melody changes slightly
and in a predictable way - the pattern is the same, simple, repetitive but building
sequentially so as to itch your brain! The Christmas carol "Twelve Days of Christmas" is
another example. The line for each successive day adds its own phrase and follows it by
repeating all the ones before and ending with "partridge in a pear tree". The Hindi movies
music composer O.P Nayyar relied on this technique in many of his hit tunes.
The third feature that makes a song stick in your mind is an element of surprise or
incongruity built into it. If the rhythm or lyric changes unexpectedly, it might incite a
congnitive itch. The movie music directors Sachin Burman, RD Burman and AR Rahman
have relied on this technique of putting in a twist midstream in a tune. The modulations
we hear in Bengali Baul tunes make them stick, as the elder Burman exploited them in his
Hindi film compositions, e.g., "Sun mere bandhu re, sun mere mitvah". Listen to some of
the songs from Lagaan (e.g in the song Madhuban Men, the twist in "Kisliye Radha Jale").
Indeed Rahman revels in throwing in such teasers.
In my opinion, one of the most hummable tunes in this context is the theme song from
the 1950s Hindi movie Awara. The tune, composed by Shankar and Jaikishan, has all the
above elements. It starts out simple, has repetitiveness, and has elements of surprise. All
these features, plus its Near East/Central Asian resonance made it a hit that also became a
continental "stuck song" candidate.
This aspect of repetitive tunes makes me question the other point made in the LA Times
report, namely that the stuck song syndrome is of recent origin. Hardly! Just about every
prayer chant, a classic and natural tune that gets "stuck", that we know of is centuries old!
Religious chants - be they the Bhajans of the Hindus, the Sufia Kalam refrains of the
Muslims, "Om Mani Padme Hun" of the Buddhists, the Gregorian chants of the Christians
or the Japjee of the Sikhs - have all these elements built into them. The contemporary
Hindustani singers Nusrat Fateh Ali and Kumar Gandharva illustrate this hauntingly in their
"Alla hoo" and the Nirguni Bhajans, respectively. Their monotone can be hypnotic- and
send the practitioner into a trance and even abandon. The dancing dervish, the wandering
minstrel and the Baul singing mendicant exemplify this in varying degrees of personal
Analysing this phenomenon further, some psychologists suggest that may be it is not the
tune or the song alone, and that it may be akin to a persistent dream. Something in the
back of your mind is trying to tell you something. And more often than not, the stuck
songs or tunes belong to music that was popular or important in your childhood. This
point needs greater elaboration in order to affirm its validity and strength. Clearly each
one of us needs to check what songs we get stuck on, analyse them ourselves and check
this point out on an individual basis. But it does look as if the stuck song comes to us
either in moments of enjoyment or as relievers of boredom. There is thus a comfort and
nostalgic element to it. Personally therefore, I am not able to understand Kellaris's survey
which showed 17 per cent of his subjects found malevolent tunes sticking in their minds.
Was it the words or the tune that got stuck, I wonder.
Consumer psychologists ask airlines, lift or elevator companies, department stores and
even hospital waiting rooms to play music so as to soothe and subliminally divert anxiety
from the customer minds. Of course when the tune is not chosen right, it can backfire and
annoy the customer, as has happened with telephones! Many organizations have realized
this folly and have wisely put in their own selections.
Well, it is all very well if you enjoy it- which you do when you first realize that you are
humming the tune. The trouble is when it persists and will not go away, even when you
are done with it. There is no "delete" button you can hit, or a switch you can turn off.
Different people use different methods to unstick the persisting tune or song off their
minds. One not-so-nice way seems to be, according to the LA Times report, to sic it or
infect it on your unsuspecting neighbour! This way you get unstuck while he or she is
victimised. I am not sure if this works or not, but I would imagine that the victim should be
familiar with the tune in order for it to work.
Try on some cinnamon!
One of the persons interviewed in the study said that if he chewed on a cinnamon,stick he
could rid himself of the stuck tune! When I looked up the pharmacopea, I found the claim
that the cinnamon bark has some antibacterial properties. But then, a stuck tune is not a
material living form like a microbe is. It infects the mind and not the body. And once you
infect your neighbour, you are apparently rid of it. So cinnamon action on this person has
more to do with his mind, in other words psychedelic rather than antibiotic. The active
principles in cinnamon are cinnamaldehyde and cinnamic acid. Whether these have any
mood- modifying properties is worth investigating.
But this adds a reverse swing to the celebrated practice of some musicians who resort to
mood- enhancers (alcohol, betel nuts, tobacco) in order to get loosened up and inspired
to create. The Beatles tried LSD before they sang "Lucy in the Sky with Diamond". The
Impressionist painters Vincent van Gogh and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec imbibed quantities
of anise liquor (anisette, made from anise seeds or saunf) for inspiration. But with the
stuck song syndrome, we have a case of wishing to get de-inspired as it were, and
cinnamon, which flourishes in the Malabar Coast, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam, is imputed to be
promoting this negative act!
L. V. Prasad Eye Institute