Have you ever suffered the annoyance of an ear-worm, that tune which refuses to leave your head? It seems to be connected with some sort of subconscious mechanism that feels the need to latch on to music and repeat and repeat and repeat. My ear worms often embed themselves first thing in the morning, when I’m at my most relaxed, most open to subconscious, creative activity. I do that foolish thing – I lean out of bed to check the time on my phone, get drawn to something on social media, click on it and whatever tune rings out, somehow that’s the one that burrows into my skull and gets stuck. There it sits, background music for all my other mental activities as I go about my daily business. I have to say, normally it is something I know already, have always found catchy and interesting. I like it. Until several hours later and I’m needing to really concentrate, or to switch off, and suddenly it becomes a major distraction, as if someone has gone and turned up the volume. The lyrics are drowning out the other, more important words coasting through my mind; however much I used to love this particular melody, I don’t necessarily want it niggling away there, unstoppable. I need to feel in control of the soundtrack to my life.
This is where something called sub-vocalisation can come in handy. If you haven’t come across it, the easiest way to explain this phenomenon is to cast your mind back to the era long ago when you learnt to read. Do you remember how you used to speak the words out loud? This wasn’t just in order to share the reading experience with your teacher or parent, so they could help you. It was also because a physicalisation of words, their embodiment through sound, was the perfectly natural, tangible way for your young self to get them off the page. Only later did you learn to read silently. And in the process, possibly for quite a while, you kept on mouthing the words. Sub-vocalisation is this association between ‘unspoken’ words and hidden movements inside your throat. These days, with the help of tiny cameras and scanners, behavioural psychologists can show our throats busy working away in all sorts of contexts: reading or thinking about words, or listening to others speaking or singing them…Whilst we are entirely oblivious. The larynx is simply following its natural inclination to join in, making all the movements required to replicate the sounds it hears (or with the written word, that it imagines it hears).
Singers know all about the close connection between listening and vocalising. Not just in terms of skill (I never cease to be amazed by the human singing feat of replicating notes simultaneously, inside the very same head which hears them), but also physiologically. All the apertures in the skull – the eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth – are connected through a maze of tubes and perforations. When we send up sound from our vocal folds, it travels right around our heads, searching out all the nooks and crannies where it can to resonate, including in that porridgy mass of brain. And I think this is why some sound patterns get stuck there. Especially the ones we feel attracted to, and first thing in the morning, when for the past few hours our hearing and vocalising mechanism has been switched off. In comes that tune through our freshly open ears; immediately our hidden vocal mechanism gets emulating it, and then it just can’t stop.
The way to break the loop is by finding something else for the muscles to do. For some people, it is enough just to chew some gum, but for most of us it requires a full-blown song. Some psychologists recommend singing what they term a ‘Cure song’ (not as in 80’s psychedelia but as in something else which will take its place). ’God Save the King’ is recommended for the job, though I haven’t been able to establish why. Perhaps they regard it as a song that is especially well-known or well-loved and therefore accessible to all. The trouble is, most of us only ever sing the national anthem on occasions that are stiff and formal and not particularly fun. I’ve never met anyone who said ‘God Save the King’ was anything like their favourite song – one they’d sing for pleasure.
There was a war-time tradition that survived into the early 1970’s where God save the Queen (as it was in those days) was played in cinemas. I have a vague memory of that happening in a draughty picture house one afternoon in Wadebridge, north Cornwall, when we would have been on the beach but for the driving rain. The film was ’Paint Your Wagon’, and I remember feeling utterly overawed by Lee Marvin trudging through the mist, crackling out ‘Wandering Star’. As the credits began to roll, out of the sound system soared a completely different kind of voice, jaunty and sweet. Who knows, it might have been Vera Lynn. Before it had got to the end of the first phrase, it was completely drowned by the crash, bang, wallop of 100 cinema goers rushing for the exit.
In my experience, for a song to qualify as an ear-worm it does have to entail a modicum of pleasure – my vocal folds have to WANT to keep repeating and repeating it, even if my mind doesn’t feel the same. And with ‘God Save the King’ I don’t think there is any danger of that. In fact, I’d put my money on lack of fun being the secret of its curative powers. So next time you find yourself singing the national anthem, just remember – it works brilliantly as aversion therapy.