By T. R. Robertson
Woah oh oh oh . . . Woah oh oh oh . . .
It was a Monday morning this past summer and I was driving down the highway on my way to work. My radio hasn’t worked since I bought this hunk of junk car, so, as usual, the only musical accompaniment for my commute was being supplied from somewhere in the depths of my subconscious.
I can count on God ’cause he is my Creator, Provider, Protector, Savior, and King . . .
Those were the only lines I remembered from the song, which wasn’t surprising, since I’d only heard the song once, during the previous day’s morning worship. The song was from the Jungle Safari VBS program at church, but I hadn’t been at VBS, listening to dozens of kids singing the song day after day. I only heard it once. But I kept hearing that one brief section of the song over and over again for most of the coming week.
A song that sticks in our minds is commonly called an earworm or a brain itch. Early Scottish folk singers called it the “piper’s maggot.”
Sometimes I find myself walking to the beat of an earworm. When I was young I walked three miles home from school each day. I learned that I could maintain a productive pace and arrive home quickly by intentionally sticking an appropriately cadenced tune in my head. The theme from Bridge Over the River Kwai was my favored song.
My mind will occasionally become stuck on a song so dominating that I begin chewing my food to the beat, or worse, grinding my teeth in time to the rhythm in my head. I first realized the VBS song was in my head because my hands were tapping out the beat on the steering wheel.
Certain types of tunes tend to be particularly sticky. Repetitive musical phrases, a tightly packed range of notes, or certain syncopations can act like a hook in your mind. Songwriters know this and will intentionally structure just such a hook in a song, knowing that a sticky song will be sung—and purchased—more by the public. A good example would be the 1988 Bobby McFerrin song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Musicians tend to experience earworms more often, as do others who listen to a lot of music. These music lovers, through years of repetition, have trained their brains to listen for and latch onto those hooks.
Wired for Music
An affinity for music seems to be hardwired into the brain from birth. One of my sons was born with a temporary hearing problem and didn’t respond to conversation from either his mother or me. But he would turn his face toward me with eyes opened wide whenever I sang to him.
All three of my boys learned best through music. Like many children, they learned the alphabet by singing the classic alphabet song. In fact, they would sing it with the same smooth jazz stylings as Lena Horne, who sang the song with the Muppets on a Sesame Street tape they watched repeatedly until it wore out.
Even human brains that have been compromised by disease will often respond to music. Oliver Sacks, a physician and neurologist, wrote the book Musicophilia. He reports that exposure to music can give Parkinson’s patients an inner rhythm that enables them to improve motor skills. Similarly Alzheimer’s patients respond positively to music, especially to songs from their youth. Familiar songs trigger memories and emotions that are otherwise inaccessible to them.
I’ve witnessed the uncanny ability of music to resurrect memories while I minister at a prison chapel. The ladies who join us for worship like to pick the songs we sing. They all have their favorites among the contemporary worship songs they’ve heard on the radio. But every one of them has at least one older song they’ll ask for repeatedly.
It might be a hymn like “The Old Rugged Cross” that brings tears to their eyes as they remember the aunt who took them to Sunday school when nobody else would. For others a good old southern gospel tune like “Victory in Jesus” raises their spirits like it did back in the days before they quit going to church. Many of the women in the prison chapel remember going to church camp or VBS and will enthusiastically sing a song like “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” over and over again.
Melodies in the Heart
For many of these women, a life in poverty has made literacy a skill on which they hold a tenuous grasp. Armed with only a limited ability to read, their earnest attempts to understand and interpret a dense book such as the Bible can be frustrating. In addition, their outlook on life has been framed by their experiences, which means I never know just what they’re going to take away from my teaching.
But they can all sing. Even if they aren’t gifted singers, music activates the parts of their brains that regulate emotion and archive memories. Women who enter the prison chapel with sagging shoulders and weary faces often leave with smiles and a rhythm to their steps.
They may not remember much from the night’s teaching, but all the way back across the yard to their housing unit they’ve got one of those hallelujah choruses playing on a loop in their brains. The longer it plays, the deeper the grooves in the memory center.
“When I’m feeling dread about my future, here or after I leave, I sing,” one young woman told me. “It keeps me going.”
I encourage the ladies to make use of their favorite songs as their entryway into learning deeper concepts about Christ and faith. Every few years my wife and I teach an entire lesson series about their favorite songs. We tell them the background of the song, plus biblical teaching and memory verses that echo the lyrics. The series is always a favorite.
There’s a tendency to take church music for granted. We see it as the entertainment portion of the Sunday service, before the real meat of the sermon. During the week Christian music becomes one among many playlists on our iPods.
Given the power of music to energize and mold our brain activities, we should be looking for ways to intentionally make use of music to help us maintain a joyful and missional attitude throughout our days.
Compile your own mental playlist of tunes that not only have a sticky melody and rhythm but also carry an encouraging and memory-shaping message. Then when the rhythm of your turn signal prompts the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies to begin playing in your head, you can mentally switch tracks to: Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.
When it’s all said and done, there’s only one question left to put to you, the reader: Which of the many sticky songs I’ve mentioned is now playing in your head?
T. R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.