The Music in My Head

Last week, when commercial television had nothing to offer, I turned once again to my Roku and found the 25th Anniversary Performance of Phantom of the Opera on Amazon Videos.   Phantom is certainly a musical that gives you a choice of what song will be playing in your head afterward.  I wouldn’t mind if the Music in My Head was Music of the Night or Think of Me or my favorite, The Point of No Return.  The phantom’s theme might keep me up at night but at least I like it.  But no, for the week since I watched, this has showing been up at odd quiet moments:

Notes is essentially a conversation set to music, not particularly melodic music either.  It’s not the lyrics that keep it running in my brain, since I don’t know 63% of the words to Notes (which means I can’t even sing along with The Music in My Head.  The Phantom would not be pleased).  It makes me wonder … what is it exactly, that makes a song catchy?

I know that an emotional attachment can do it.  A few bars of Unchained Melody can start the Righteous Brothers singing in my head because it’s our song and it takes only a few steel-guitar notes to start Sleepwalk playing because it’s the best slow dance song in the world.  Sleepwalk proves that lyrics are not required for a song to be catchy.  Pachelbel’s Canon can become the Music in My Head instantly because of the beautiful melody, even though I have no real emotional attachment (but a great deal of familiarity).  OK.  Common Thread: I like all of those pieces.  But you know what?  I’m not a big fan of Oklahoma but after years of hearing it play on my Mom’s stereo, just a taste of a song can set the chicks and ducks and geese scurrying or the wind sweeping down the plains (those are lyrics The Surrey with the Fringe on Top and Oklahoma, Younger Eyes).  And I think we’ve all had the experience of a song we hate … maybe Achy Breaky Heart … or a freaking commercial running in our brains.  Even fifty years after the commercial stopped running, Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz (Oh, what a relief it is) can show up unexpectedly.

So, we’re down to familiarity.  Except I walked out of Les Miserables humming I Dreamed a Dream in spite of the general absence of hummable tunes and the fact that I didn’t especially like the show.  OK, Les Mis Lovers, calm down.  I didn’t know the book before seeing it, and when I saw it again and understood the story, I liked it.  The point is the tune was catchy without familiarity.  Maybe its none-of-the-above or maybe, there’s no simple answer.

I found an interesting article on the website Penn State Research titled What Makes a Song Catchy?  Keith Duffy, a professor of rhetoric and composition at Penn State explains that MRIs show that a catchy song makes the auditory part of the brain ‘itch’, and the only way the itch can be scratched is by listening to the song.  Paul Barstrom, another music professor at Penn State asks, If mentally repeating a song is the brain ‘scratching’, then what causes that initial ‘itch?’  He suggests easy to remember lyrics, familiarity, a cultural connection, repetition and a particularly appealing performance then concludes, It’s a pretty intangible thing.   If it wasn’t, then everybody would be writing catchy songs.  So there you go.  How many grants did it take to figure that out?  Perhaps I’m in the wrong business.

In the meantime, I’m going to take this as a possible antidote to Notes.

What’s the music in your head?

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5 Comments on “The Music in My Head”


  1. OMG, Bud! You didn’t like Les Miserables the 1st time you saw it? It’s my VERY FAVORITE play in the WHOLE wide world!!

    • oldereyes Says:

      Like I say, I didn’t know the story, and I couldn’t undo enough of the lyrics to get it. Maybe the acoustics were bad. The second time, I took my daughter and spent some time reading the background and I liked it. Have you seen the trailers for the film? It looks like it’s going to be good. They are actuall performing it live as it is filmed instaed of dubbing in music later, like the often do with filmed musicals.


  2. Funny… I often find myself singing “Red and Black” and “On My Own” from Les Mis. “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” was my go-to solo 20 years ago. I sometimes wind up with the choral finale to Beethoven’s 9th (yes, ein Deutsche) in my head. Or a movement from Carmina Burana. Or the Mozart Dies Irae. And any number of less ancient stuff… but that’s the stuff that makes me wish I could wash it out of my brain.

    • oldereyes Says:

      I literally always have something playing in my head, and since I’m a whistler, that can be annoying. One good thing about Notes is it’s not very whistleable.


      • You’re right. It’s much more in the vein of operatic recitative. But having music in your head is a blessing. I’m glad your life has a soundtrack. 🙂


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