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Why We Shouldn't Get Rid of Earworms
By Elyse Sommer
I recently stumbled across a publication called Mental Floss Magazine. No, it's not geared to dentists or dental assistants, or consumers looking for shinier, whiter teeth. However, its publishers do claim that the wealth of miscellaneous information they publish will bring a smile to your face.
A recent subject explored for Mental Floss by Jessica Hullinger is a malady known as earworms. That's when "a catchy piece of music gets stuck in our heads and no matter what we do, we can't seem to dislodge." Chewing gum, the prevention and cure method recommended by Ms. Hullinger, courtesy of findings by scientists at the University of Reading, UK, did "indeed bring a smile to this theater goer's face. However, it also made me more than a bit nostalgic for the golden era of musical theater, when show after show resulted in an instant attack of earworms — beginning as the actors took their curtain call and you walked up the aisle, and continuing to hum-hum-hum into your ear for days afterwards.
This not to complain that this era of newer, less instantly hummable song driven shows hasn't brought us a wealth of rich, story propelling scores — scores that do worm their way into the ear and memory, but only after repeated listening. There have also been exceptions with more immediate break-out numbers; for example, Billy Elliott, Spring Awakening and Book of Mormon).
Since there isn't a musical theater song included in the Mental Floss list of current songs most likely to cause earworms it would seem that, at least for the theater going population, this stick-to-the-ears ailment has gone the way of whooping cough and diphtheria. No doubt the spread of the earworm disase during the golden era of Broadway musicals was helped by there being lots of DJs who played show tunes recorded by popular artists (often before a show actually opened).
But wait, isn't Broadway currently abuzz with some terrific ear ticklers"that reverberate inside your head as you read the title? What about "I've Got Rhythm", "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Shall We Dance?" Try unsticking earworms like "New York, New York", and "Gigi." "The thing is that all these tunes first lodged themselves in listeners' heads many years ago as part of classic movie musicals (Gigi and American in Paris) and golden era musicals (On the Town and The King and I).
Since American in Paris was never before a stage musical, the gorgeous Gershwin score and ballet dancing have put it along side two shows with never before heard songs — Fun Home and Something Rotten. The former falls into that category of non-traditional new musicals with scores that grow on you slowly rather than instantly. The latter, has a number of catchy tunes but none are major and instant earworms. That makes American in Paris a classic case deliverer of both earworms (in the best sense) and eye candy. Whether it wins or not — and much as I loved it, I can't help rooting for the oddball, new kid on the block, Fun Home — American In Paris shows that a mix of something old (those earworm-y Gershwin tunes) and something new (a mostly ballet-driven musical) is a fine way to bring back some of those earworms.