Holy Earworm, Batman!

Image: Actors Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin (Photo from the Independent, 8/24/16)

An earworm is a tune that gets stuck in your head.

Recently a student asked me why, every time she goes to services, she comes home with one of the tunes playing over and over in her head.

According to psychologists, over 90% of people experience earworms. There’s something in the wiring of our brain that “catches” certain songs and plays them on repeat. A new study in the Journal of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts offers insights on why this happens. According to music psychologist Kelly¬†Jakubowski, her team identified three main reasons why they occur: pace, the shape of the melody and a few unique intervals that make a song stand out.

  • Pace: Earworm tunes tend to be upbeat, and to encourage movement.
  • Musical shape: The tunes tend to be simple and somewhat repetitive.
  • Unique intervals: While the tunes are simple, they have something that makes the tune unusual, often an interval (distance between notes) that is unexpected and catchy.

It’s a very effortless form of memory, so we’re not even trying, and this music comes into our head and repeats. And it’s very often very veridical, meaning it’s a very good representation of the original tune that we’re remembering.

So my big hope is that that can tell us something about the automaticity of musical memory and its power as a tool for learning. So imagine if we could recall facts that we wanted as easily as we can bring new ones to mind without even trying. – Kelly Jakbowski interview reported on CNN, 5/8/17

Not all Jewish service music sticks in our heads, but the tunes that do can serve a wonderful purpose: they are a memory aid to learning the words of prayers. For example, if I said to a non-Hebrew speaking person who is regular at services, “Recite for me the first lines of the Song of the Sea in Hebrew,” they’d probably panic and protest that they don’t speak Hebrew. But if I were to say, “Do you know the first few lines of Mi Chamocha?” they would be able to sing it, likely with correct pronunciation of the Hebrew, which is fairly tricky!

This is why I tell beginning adult students of Hebrew that regular attendance at services will help their studies immensely. Tunes and fragments of tunes will stick in their heads, anchoring bits of Hebrew grammar in a completely painless process. Even if you are not consciously trying to learn Hebrew, you’ll be surprised how much prayer book Hebrew you will learn by letting the earworms play in your head!

This phenomenon is not limited to pop or “camp” tunes. One of the most powerful service earworms for me is Helfman’s Shma Koleinu [Hear Us,] a very dignified High Holy Day setting for the prayer. I cannot read the words to that section of the daily Amidah without triggering Helfman’s beautiful tune in my head.

I no longer need help learning the Hebrew words of prayers, but earworms still have a function for me. Now, when I get a service tune and its words stuck in my head, I use it as a meditation on that prayer. I assume that there’s something I need in that prayer, and I let it play over and over in the background of my mind.

When it gets tiresome, I go for one of two common earworm cures: I play the tune all the way to the end (YouTube is good for this) or I sing a verse of “America the Beautiful” very slowly and loudly. That generally does the trick!


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

2 thoughts on “Holy Earworm, Batman!”

  1. interesting to learn; it isn’t easy for me to retain the tunes, but it makes me want to listen more often online to ‘imprint’ the tunes/words to keep up better at service.

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