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In one ear. . .

02 November 2012

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ARE you plagued by the tune of "All things bright and beautiful", or "Lord of all hopefulness"? Do you wake up with "Lord of the Dance" or "Make me a channel of your peace" ringing in your ears? If so, then you suffer from "earworms", those irritating tunes that burrow into your consciousness and won't be dislodged.

The psychology and neurophysiology of this phenomenon has become the subject of investigation by scientists at Goldsmiths University of London, and their work formed the basis of Earworms (Radio 4, Monday of last week). It was presented by Shaun Keaveny, of Radio 6 Music, whose Breakfast Show - which encourages listeners to write in about their earworms - provided the inspiration for the research.

The first result of this - reassuring to all those who thought that they were suffering in a silence broken only by the Bee Gees or Madonna - is that it is a widely reported phenomenon. The earworms can be stimulated into song by life experiences, such as going on a summer holiday, for example, or stressful situations, such as childbirth. There may be an element of musical therapy, in which the familiar earworm acts as a kind of psychological earthing mechanism in moments of crisis.

So what makes a good earworm? This is something that song- and jingle-writers would dearly love to know; but, for the moment, analysts and statisticians on the Goldsmiths team can point us only to something we probably already recognise: the "stickiness" of a tune depends on its simplicity and singability.

We are, it seems, much more likely to remember tunes when they are sung rather than played to us; and so consistent is our recall of our favourite tunes that we will recite them at the same pitch and tempo, however long it is between recitations.

If there were ever a programme likely to induce an infestation of earworms, then it was Says Who? (Radio 2, Monday of last week). Advertised as a contribution to the theme of morality for Radio 2's Faith in the World Week, and presented by the Revd Richard Coles, this hour-long documentary was, to all intents and purposes, an anthology of songs accompanied by interviews and commentary.

The Radio 2 documentary format is long-established, and all shows of this kind are underlaid with a seamless soundtrack. But in Says Who? the songs were so intrusive, and the gaps were between the spoken contributions were so languorous, that instinctive goodwill towards the project gave way to frustration.

That the programme did not come to a point would be like criticising the Teletubbies for not having a narrative arc. This was a programme whose value should be judged according to general impressions. Thus the Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, managed to sneak in something genuinely thought-provoking about the difference between cynicism and scepticism: the latest scandals to engulf our national institutions should provoke the latter, not the former.

By contrast, the contributions of a guilt-ridden former city slicker, a celebrity "life and talent coach", and the indispensable panel of young people, did nothing to redeem a programme that could have been concocted by our Goldsmiths researchers in their coffee break.

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