A Spoonful of Earworms? The Music in My Brain

 Many public agencies have messaging goals. They need, for instance, to tell people about pandemic rules and how we can protect each other. For most of us these messages are hard to hear because they restrict our personal freedoms. In addition, all this technical stuff quickly gets boring.

So how can responsible leaders get these important messages across in a palatable form? One way is by using music.

Music and the Message

I am indebted to friends for many things. And one of them is passing along the links to interesting videos. Have you seen any of those pandemic message creative parodies? They are attracting a lot of attention these days. Here is just one of many... 

A friend sent that one; then I found some more and sent links to friends. Then another friend sent another link. I watched it and found many more. These captivating musical productions all take a light-hearted approach. But they are transmitting a deadly serious message. We have to do unpleasant things like staying at home and wearing masks. But we do it to avoid even more unpleasant things like sickness and death by pandemic.

I recently watched about six of these clever Covid-19 performances featuring the musically talented Marsh family. Delightful! One of my favorites is "Have The New Jab" based on Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah.' Another is "The Buy-in Eats Tonight" based on Solomon Linda's 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’ They even have a video parody of 'Do-Re-Mi' from 'The Sound of Music' promoting Covid-fighting practices. And that gave rise to a thought.

Musical Pleasures

It was fascinating to discover that a familiar melody makes the most clinical and boring message more acceptable. Not surprising if that melody stimulates the brain's pleasure centres, and produces what has been termed the pleasure response. This is exactly what Daniel Levitin discovered in his studies on the topic of 'your brain on music.'

The brain scan work done in Levitin's lab clearly demonstrated that melodies stimulate activity in certain portions of the brain. These areas, the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala, are associated with the brain's pleasure response. This is apparently effected by controlling the production of dopamine, the so-called 'feel good' hormone.

So first a familiar melody elicits the pleasure response. Then the boring, clinical message of pandemic control is married to those pleasurable feelings. The well-intentioned advice begins to feel like fun. And what if we also associate that familiar piece of music with pleasurable past experiences? Why then the musician gets twice the bang for the buck.

A Spoonful of Sugar

Creative people discovered the value of associating pleasure with otherwise indigestible realities long before science explained it. One example only is the work of two brothers, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman.

Who were the Sherman brothers you wonder? Here's what Wikipedia has to say: 'Julie Andrews was not yet committed for the part of Mary Poppins [circa 1961]. She did not like the song that was written for her, believing it did not have enough snap to it. The original song was called "The Eyes of Love". Walt Disney instructed the Sherman Brothers to come up with something more catchy. Robert Sherman, the primary lyricist of the duo, arrived home from work one evening, having worked all day trying to come up with a song idea. As he walked in the door, his wife, Joyce, informed him that the children had gotten their polio vaccine that day. Robert asked his son, Jeffrey, if it hurt (thinking the child had received a shot). The child responded that the medicine was put on a cube of sugar and that he swallowed it. Realizing what he had, Robert Sherman arrived at work early the next morning with the title of the song "A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down". Sherman suggested the lyric to his brother, Richard, who was at first dismissive but slowly came around. At his brother's behest, Richard put melody to the lyric, and with that, the song was born.'

Familiar melody, without doubt, is the spoonful of sugar that makes so many 'medicines' more palatable.

And Now For a Commercial Message

And not only indigestible realities. What about dull, boring, tedious or otherwise uninteresting things that we would normally ignore? No salesperson wants their product ignored. Many have learned to bring music to their aid in gaining the attention of potential customers. I notice this approach used in radio and TV commercials every day. They purchase the rights to one well known melody or another and then create lyrics to promote their product or service. The product becomes more desirable because of its association with the pleasure response. I used to think it was just because they couldn't compose their own melody. Instead they grabbed one already available to carry their marketing message.

What I didn't know is that there is a well-developed science of the use of music in advertising. Our perceptions of music are tightly integrated with memory and emotion. Both memory and emotion are qualities that merchandisers fervently desire to have associated with their products.

Something we remember and associate with positive emotions is something we are likely to buy. Professor David Huron, a specialist in the psychology of music at Ohio State University, has proposed six major ways in which music can help to promote products. Notably, two of these are emotion and memorability. Huron claims that adding melody is "the most common musical technique for aiding memorability and hence product recall."

Melodic Memories

Honor Whiteman in an article written for Medical News Today describes some interesting research on music and memory. One study found that singing new information aids memory and improves learning. The authors recommend a 'listen-and-sing' learning method. Could this be why learning the words to songs we sing is so much easier than memorizing poetry?

No wonder replacing "Rocket Man," syllable-for-syllable with "Rakuten" in the famous Elton John melody creates an association that lingers in the mind. Product recall is almost impossible to avoid.

These insights raise more questions. Why does a given melody stimulate the pleasure response? Is it something inherent in its tonal or structural qualities? Or is it just familiarity born of simple repetition?

Could it be the feeling of 'recognition' alone that promotes the pleasure response? I suspect that may be so. I experience a similar feeling when recognizing the face and voice of a well-known actor in some film where I hadn't expected to find him or her. And of all the Marsh family videos my two favorites feature the two melodies I already knew best.

Musical Imagery

And what of the earworm? Wikipedia says an earworm is also called a brainworm, sticky music or stuck song syndrome. More formally, an "Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI), is a catchy and/or memorable piece of music or saying that continuously occupies a person's mind even after it is no longer being played.”

Musical imagery! What an engaging thought. Does this suggest that when we play back a melody to ourselves in the brain it is actually the same as re-seeing a familiar image like the Mona Lisa, in our mind? Or is it just applying terminology from a phenomenon we think we understand to something we don't really understand very well at all?

Hey. Doesn’t an earworm melody eventually generate pain rather than a pleasure response? Recent research suggests the two may be more closely related than we might imagine. Dopamine it seems may be implicated in our perceptions of pain as well as of pleasure.

In closing, dare I suggest that, to paraphrase an old song title, an interesting thought is like a melody? If so, in my brain, even after the song is ended, the melody lingers on.

Some Follow-up Reading/Listening

Daniel Levitin - Your Brain On Music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyt8EmsJIBA

Nessun Dorma...alla Corona - Daniel Emmet (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uL52AuF4QzY).

The power of music: how it can benefit health: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/302903#Music-and-memory

Wikipedia on - A Spoonful of Sugar:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Spoonful_of_Sugar

Wikipedia on - Earworm: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earworm

Wikipedia - Music in advertising: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_in_advertising


Popular Posts