Sunday, June 29, 2008

Thoughts On Those Really Annoying Tunes You Get Stuck In Your Head

Ok, now this is the three-hundredth post on this blog. Woohoo!

Back to business.

Ok, now I've done a whole lot of really cool choral work in my day. I was in the Choraliers at San Jose State University, under Dr. Charlene Archibeque, and we did some kicking stuff. I've been in the Chorus of Beethoven's 9th Symphony under Maestro George Cleve, San Jose Symphony. I've been in Mahler's Second. I've done the magnificent Durufle Requiem. I've done liturgical works by Anton Bruckner. I've done stuff by Palestrina, and Orlando di Lasso, and Tomas Luis de Victoria, and Pergolesi; I've done stuff by Bach and Handel. I've done the Rutter Gloria.

And that's just the pure choral works; I've also been in Opera, and I've done operas by Mozart, Bizet, Strauss (the Austrian one--not the German one), Verdi, Puccini, and Tschaikovsky.

All told, I've done some of the most magnificent choral and vocal music ever composed by the human mind.

So, then, why is it that I get stuff like this stuck in my head:
There was an old man called Michael Finnegan.
He grew whiskers on his chin again.
The wind came up and blew them in again,
Poor old Michael Finnegan!

(Peanut gallery:) Begin Again!

There was an old man called Michael Finnegan....
Ad nauseum.

I mean, this would be really, really annoying for anyone, even if they hadn't spent their college years absorbing the musical corpus of Western Civilization. For someone who styles himself a musician, however, this challenges one's sanity.

Geez, I'm starting to sound like Sam the American Eagle.


So anyway, I was on our church's Praise Team this morning. Now, among other things, that meant that I had to do a whole lot of singing this morning. We all had to show up at 7:30 to run through the music for the service, then we had to sing during First Service, then (a bit later) we had to sing for Second Service. All told, that's an awful lot of singing to do, lasting from really early when the voice is not yet awake, until a few minutes after noon.

So we're singing those songs over and over and over again.

Now, the thing about church music is that it's never possible to please everyone. There are people in this world who like the old high-church hymns; there are those who like the Stamps-Baxter stuff that embodies much of the American Evangelical musical traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; there are those who like the modern Christian music, like what comes over the radio these days; and there are those who like the really old-school stuff, much of which is in Latin.

Me, I'm not too keen on the modern Christian-radio music genre. I like the Latin stuff. Trouble is, if you sing the Latin stuff in a typical Church of Christ, people look at you funny and warn you to stop speaking in tongues.

Alas, when you have unusual musical tastes, it's likely that your church isn't going to cater to them. Most of the songs we sang this morning were of the genres that I don't particularly care for. And I had to sing them over, and over, and over. That's ok, and all; but it does mean that I wind up with really annoying songs stuck in my head.

And then my wife started making fun of me! As if I actually deserved it or something. ;-)

So she blithely started giving me advice for getting these really annoying songs out of my head. Here's how you do it (says she):
  1. Think of an even more annoying song than the one you can't get rid of.
  2. Start humming it to yourself on an endless loop.
  3. Voila!
You'll banish the song you had going right quick. Of course, there is one little drawback to this method, which becomes obvious on a moment's reflection....

So we started trying it. She suggested I start with:
One, two, three four five,
Once I caught a fish alive,
Six, seven, eight nine ten,
Then I let it go again....
You know, it's a little depressing when one realizes just how many of these insipid little ditties one knows. I suspect it comes from having children.

And I said, "Nooooooooo!" That one was just too annoying. So I tried the Michael Finnegan song:
There was an old man called Michael Finnegan.
He grew whiskers on his chin again....
And sure enough, in no time I'd happened to banish all that annoying church music from my head. Success! Except that, now I had to share my head with Michael Finnegan.

So my wife helpfully suggested that, would I like to try the most annoying song she can think of?

With great trepidation, I asked: "Which one is that?"
(Happily): Fish heads, fish heads...
Stop. Right now. No more. This is evil.

So I decided to try something else. If you're going to have a really annoying song stuck in your head, you might as well pick one that at least has a little culture behind it. So I tried a little Bach, and started singing the melody from Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, but a little like one was playing a '45 at '78:
DA duh duh DA duh DAH DAH duh DAH DAH dum da DEE dum duh dum dah duh....
Yeah, that can get a little annoying, if you do it enough. Alas, it wasn't enough. A minute or so after I stopped, the guy with the Sisyphean dermatological problems was back:
There was an old man called Michael Finnegan...
Ok, is there anyone else in the Classical Repertoire that I could use to cleanse my brain? Well, at first I thought I'd try Handel, but I very, very quickly decided not to. I mean, have you ever gotten the Hallelujah Chorus stuck in your head?
Haaaaaa-lelujah! Haaaaaaa-lelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Halleeeeeluuuuuujah!
Haaaaaa-lelujah! Haaaaaaa-lelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Halleeeeeluuuuuujah!
It sounds great if you're hearing it once. Once. If you get it on an endlessly repeating soundtrack, pretty soon you'd kill to hear anything else. Even Pomp and Circumstance.

Ok, maybe not that.

Well, wise as my wife is, I think her method of banishing an unwanted song is ultimately self-defeating. I think the only way to do it is to find something to do that engages the brain so fully that it crowds any other music out.

My wife's own personal strategy is to embrace the annoyance: instead of letting herself be annoyed by the song in question, she chooses to Let it be and allow the song to luxuriate in its exquisite annoyingness; she chooses to enjoy the annoy. (Incidentally, Let It Be is an appropriate song for this sort of thing, too.) The trouble is when she's doing it around other people, she becomes contagious.

Me? I think that it's appropriate to spank anyone who intentionally puts one of those songs in there....


Arby said...

The theme song to the Brady Bunch. It is a most voracious mental weed, killing any other thought in your head.

"Here's the story,
of a man named Brady..."

Running for the hills now...

Timothy Power said...

Dude. I think that one warrants a spanking.

B. Durbin said...

I was a summer camp counselor for four years and we sang while serving meals, before each meal, at the campfires...

I can pretty much not only not care about earworms, but I can deliberately not even hear what I'm singing.

Strangely enough, I had a friend post on this same topic not too long ago.

(And right now I can drive anything out of my head by a mental loop of the overture to The Gondoliers. I love that piece.)

Chris said...

1) I'll post sometime in the future on college choir musical experiences via the Furman Singers and Dr. Bingham Vick (remind me to tell the one about singing inside the Kremlin back during the bad old days). More scary similarness.
2) Eternally repeating "praise songs" that are so popular in "contemporary" worship services today are nice for about 3 minutes, but then they get reeeeeaaaallllly old. Give me a rousing rendition of "Oh For a Thousand Tongues" for a hymn, a great old spiritual (preferably sung by a choir that is 97% anglo-saxon just for the comedic value), and then a nice Rutter anthem complete with orchestra. Now THAT'S a worship service.
3) My wife had to ban Veggie Tales for about 4 years because of their amazing ability to stick in one's head. "Oh wheeeeeeerrrrre is my hair brush?! Oh WHEEEEEERRRRRREEEE is my hair brush?!!" etc etc. Only now can we occasionally enjoy Silly Songs with Larry, and never while driving in the car. Somehow, only hearing but not seeing the video makes the song stick that much more permanently.
4) Said wife is a firm believer in the theory of "if you have a song stuck in your head, the best way to get rid of it is to give it away". Hence, she will come into my office and start singing ad nauseum until she's gotten closure and I'm stuck with the viral melody. (Now THAT'S a great name for a rock band!)