The “earworm”, a song that is stuck on auto-repeat in one’s head, is such a pervasive cultural phenomenon that it has been researched by a variety of psychologists and neuroscientists, and given the official sounding name of Involuntary Musical Imagery (IMI).

Why would anyone substitute thought, or the space for a thought, with a repeated phrase from the last or most frequently listened-to tune? The phenomenon should be placed within the context of playback technologies, which are inherently a form of repetition. One can even, regardless of interior auto-repeat, crave a certain song, the “hit song”, go to whichever device and press “play”.

Given that one can, seemingly, continue thinking, or segue into conversation, despite the “earworm”, it could be referred to as “background noise”, just like the incessant song you picked up after strolling down the aisles of your local supermarket, a song you otherwise can’t stand.

Here’s the categorical breakdown: songs with lyrics account for 73.7% of earworms, whereas instrumental music accounts for 7.7%. I seem to have one song or another unaccountably popping into my head, as well as whatever was last listened to, but I always feel cool, like something beneficial has happened, when a jazz instrumental starts looping underneath my overt thoughts.

You might be the type that thinks jazz is “difficult”, or someone who doesn’t even look in the direction of “classical”, but beyond the facility that either genre demands, they’re also (for the most part) instrumental, and hence, don’t evince the kind of melody or chorus that will immediately get stuck in the listener’s head.

Consider that the audience who first consumed “classical” music, listened to it (for the most part) as a one-off event. While the symphony, semiotically speaking, might reinforce that particular listener’s way of life, its power structures and/or cultural assumptions, there is an aspect to the symphony’s instrumental “liveness” that lets the listener float along with, and into, the symphony’s abstract narrative, rather than being embedded with the specifics of “lyrical content”. What did you imagine (or hear) as the symphony progressed, and what stuck in your head once it was over?

So, close your eyes and tell me, what jazz song do you / can you hear in your head? And/or what was going through your head after your walked out of the jazz club on 52nd Street, New York City, in 1956 (or pick a year). You, the listener, someone with a particular way of life, in your rumpled suit or pull-over ready-to-wear dress, unfiltered cigarettes in your pocket/purse, hailed a taxi . . . and you heard the city, the sound of the city, the noise that keeps all those buildings from collapsing, and the next day, the very next day, you woke up to the sound of Thelonious Monk’s celeste (on “Pannonica”) guiding your steps, guiding your bare feet on the floor of a five-story walk-up.

Now read: A Visual Explication of the first Be-bop Recording

Musical music, historical and cultural connections

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