Taking Control of Your Emotional Playlist with Earworms

Cycles of depression are often accompanied by negative thought patterns that, once triggered, go on auto play. That’s something they have in common with those annoying songs that we can’t seem to shake: earworms.

The article “Play it Again, Brain” in New Scientist lists some earworm characteristics.
• About 98 percent of us are susceptible.
• They typically run between 15 and 30 seconds.
• We’re most susceptible to music that is repetitive and simple with unexpected variations in rhythm or melody.
• Triggers include songs we’ve heard repeatedly or recently, or associated with stressful or stimulating experiences.

Songs with lyrics are five times more likely to stick than commercial jingles, instrumental music is less sticky than jingles.

It’s possible that the part of the brain where earworms lodge evolved to receive the transmission of oral knowledge in verse form before people learned to read and write. When knowledge shifted to print books, the melodic and rhythmic shifts in “The Alphabet Song” became indispensable in reminding us how to look things up.

Like rumination, many earworms that stick in our heads are unwelcome. When Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” lodges in my head, I worry that I won’t be happy until I can shake it.

Fortunately, the melody to “America” from West Side Story, is every bit as catchy, and, for me, significantly less annoying. It’s my go-to song for shaking unwelcome earworms, and since I’ve used it so often for this purpose, it quickly fades out and lets me get back to life as usual.

On The Hilarious World of Depression podcast’s listener coping songs volumes one and two I enjoyed some of the creative ways that people co-opted the refrains of catchy songs to ameliorate the negative thought loops in their heads.

One listener received frequent exposure to Chris Stapleton’s “Parachute” because it was featured on a Ram truck commercial.

You only need a roof when it’s raining
You only need a fire when it’s cold
You only need a drink when the whiskey
Is the only thing that you have left to hold
Sun comes up and goes back down
And falling feels like flying till you hit the ground
Say the word and I’ll be there for you
Baby, I will be your parachute

In searching for popular songs used in current TV commercials, I came away more frazzled than comforted. Most had serious earworm potential, but none struck me as good coping candidates.

The listener who found comfort in the theme from TV’s The Greatest American Hero had never watched the show and didn’t know where she’d heard it. I believe it got some radio air play when it came out, so maybe she heard it on the way to the job where it came in handy while she juggled abusive phone calls.

Believe it or not, I’m walkin’ on air
I never thought I could feel so free
Flyin’ away on a wing and a prayer
Who could it be?
Believe it or not it’s just me

None of the TV shows that I watch these days have themes with lyrics. If I were looking for a theme that could potentially motivate a shut-in to get out and spend time with friends, I might go with the theme from Cheers.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Given the way that the music of The Beatles has lingered in popular culture, it’s not surprising that one of the listeners eventually came across the coping song refrain from “Here Comes the Sun.”

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right

During the era when MTV played music videos, the ear-wormy “Money for Nothing” got implanted in my brain. But it’s the refrain of “Why Worry” from their Brothers in Arms CD that I remember for its coping song potential.

Why worry
There should be laughter after pain
There should be sunshine after rain
These things have always been the same
So why worry now
Why worry now

It’s not surprising that a listener found a coping song in a Broadway musical or that the song stuck with her because she associates it with a very stressful part of her life. Sending audiences out of the theater at least humming if not singing a tune used to be part of the job description for musical theater composers. And even musical comedies feature darkest-before-the-dawn moments for their characters.

In “Hard Candy Christmas” from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas the out-of-work prostitutes have to start new lives, but the owner knows:

Me, I’ll be just
Fine and dandy
Lord it’s like a hard candy Christmas
I’m barely getting through tomorrow
But still I won’t let
Sorrow bring me way down

My favorite coping song from a Broadway musical first appeared in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is a cheerful parody of Broadway musical resilience songs. And it comes at a moment when all the characters are completely out of options.

Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true,
You’ll see it’s all a show,
Keep ’em laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you!

A gentle reminder that even the direst situations can be hilarious.

Ten Minute Exercise
  1. Set a timer for ten minutes.
  2. Go to YouTube to search for songs with catchy refrains that you find comforting or reassuring and make a playlist.
  3. Listen as needed.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.