Earworm music

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Q: My 14 year old son keeps singing Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You, around the house, in the car, at the dinner table, etc. He loves to sing and was just accepted into his new high school’s elite chorale group for next year. While I want to support his creative endeavors, I also recognize that singing Shape of You is driving his younger sister and brother (and his parents) nuts, and the lyrics are degrading when it comes to women and casual sex. When I ask him to stop, he does momentarily, but inevitably returns to singing it moments later, or hums the tune absent-mindedly. He says it’s just too catchy for him to stop (and admittedly, I can’t disagree). How can I get him to stop or at least switch tunes without dampening his creative spirit?

~Sound of Music, Winchester, MA

A: Dear Sound,
First of all, I would not worry for a minute about dampening your son’s creative spirit – the power of art (and of the artists who create it) is that the drive for human expression overcomes and transcends any criticism or opposition, whether it be from parents, politicians, or the public. Art can be an indomitable voice that our world needs; look at how rock music lifted up and solidified young people challenging the war in Vietnam.

Instead of asking your son to stop singing (which he won’t do anyway), help him understand the deeper implications of the words, attitudes, and human behaviors reflected in the songs he sings. The great success of Hamilton is not just due to its catchy contemporary music, but because of the content of its music and the story it tells. Through Hamilton, young people are learning about the foundations of the great social experiment of American democracy, which they are understanding and engaging in as a living, never completed work in progress. By thinking about the whole of the music your son sings, you are respecting and supporting his art rather than restricting or criticizing it. He will hear you because you are helping him develop a more mature, meaningful, and responsible relationship to his art.

In addition to your son’s powerful creative drive, what your son and your family have discovered is that some songs are just too catchy to simply will out of our heads. Many popular songs (and commercial jingles) are designed to get stuck in our heads, becoming what are commonly known as “earworms”. Successful earworms become hit songs or always remind us of the product that they advertise. Traditionally, this has been a “hit or miss” phenomenon, with some songwriters having more talent or luck than others. But a recent study in music psychology examined the neuroscience of earworms, finding three key characteristics of successful earworms: 1) a rhythm you can move to, 2) a characteristic pattern or shape to the melody, and, 3) perhaps most elusive, a few unique intervals that stand out and grab your memory. A good dance rhythm engages and integrates many parts of your brain, not only your auditory cortex, speech and memory centers, but your motor cortex and cerebellum – it makes you want to move. A simple, rhythmic, up-down-up pattern, which is punctuated or disrupted by unique and memorable intervals, completes the triad of triggers. Between 2010 and 2013, researchers asked 3,000 people to name their most frequent earworms and, not surprisingly, most were contemporary pop songs, dominated by Lady Gaga (3 out of 9 – Bad Romance #1, Alejandro, and Poker Face). But there were also songs that were decades old – Don’t Stop Believin’, Journey, 1981 and Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen, 1975. The best earworms can stick for centuries, as demonstrated by the ever-present, Mozart-arranged Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, 1761!

The compelling, pleasurable earworm of Shape of You makes the lyrics about adult sexual relationships more attractive and normative for your son, who is not developmentally ready for such relationships (even though he will argue with you endlessly that he is – no teenager wants to be thought of as “immature”). As with most teens, your son is using media aspirationally, as a way of learning how to behave as an older adolescent and young adult. As you might imagine, many of my adolescent patients listen to music while waiting to be seen. I ask them if I can listen and, if the music is misogynistic, violent, sexual, or negative, I will ask them what they think. They usually respond that they don’t pay attention to the lyrics, they just like the beat. I follow up by asking, how they’d feel about their younger brother or sister listening to the music. To this, they often pause, reflect, and say that that wouldn’t be good. This exchange demonstrates what is known as the “third person effect”, young people often feel that they are immune to influence, but those lyrics (or movies or video games) do affect others.

The next time your son is singing Shape of You (or using any media may negatively influence his thoughts and behaviors), try this with him. Ask how he thinks that might affect his younger siblings. Once he really thinks about it, he may come to his own realization that the media he is using is affecting him also. By helping him think more critically about the media he creates and consumes, rather than telling him it is wrong, you will guide him to discover for himself and take ownership of creating and consuming media in mindful, healthful, and pro-social ways.

Enjoy your music, listen mindfully, and sing as if everyone is listening,

The Mediatrician®

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