Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Senses: Two Genera of Living Earworms

As we've already seen we can close our eyes but we can't shut off our ears. We can't escape the sonic landscape around us. It used to be the sound of the natural world that surrounded humans. From birds and insects to the wind in the trees and flowing water. Many of us still find a brook or the pounding waves incredibly calming.

Then it became the sounds of the town and city. We live and work surrounded by noise. Many people don't find the city as calming as the country. We can't stop the noise, instead we hide it when we can. Thus was created Muzak.

Between Muzak and radio we ended up surrounded by music. Songs blare at us endlessly. Which leads to the phenomena of the ohrwurm.

Ohrwurm is a German word that translates to earworm. If you've ever had a tune stuck in your head you've had an earworm. It turns out a lot of research has been done on earworms though the tendency now is to call them involuntary musical imagery or INMI. Science removes some of the absurd creativity of language in its quest for clarity and understanding. Now it's time to use the structure of science to put it back again.

I'm shamelessly borrowing from biology. The individual songs that get stuck in your head are species of earworm. Family groupings of earworms are the genera. (plural of genus of course).

I wish to continue this dissertation by describing two genera of earworms. Not examples of individual songs but of the family groups of the type of sounds that keep ending up stuck in our heads.

First... the horrible overuse of auto-tune. Like all infestations of foreign species released into an environment it started with the best of intentions. Being able to change a singer's voice was revolutionary. Creative even. The story of how Cher scored a major hit thanks to auto-tune has been told several times. Believe was a huge hit.

What started as the introduction of a foreign species soon became a runaway infestation. And that link is two years old. It's only gotten worse. What ever happened to good singing? Now you don't even have to be able to hold a note as the computer will do it for you. I don't think we'll get away from it soon since country music singers, a genre not known for the necessity to hit each note exactly, are using the tool while performing.

Second... the drum beat that will never die. Once a group of species adapts to an environment there's almost no getting rid of them. Once something catches on we may be stuck with it for a long time.

In 1969 The Winstons put out a single for Color Him Father which won a grammy in 1970. The b-side of the single was an instrumental called Amen Brother. In the middle of the song is a six second long drum break.

We'll never know who first took that six second strand of musical DNA and incorporated it into their own composition. Tthat six seconds has ended up in more songs and more genres than you can imagine. That bit of musical DNA is now with us forever.

The result? Sit back and listen to Nate Harrison describe the history of the Amen Break in Can I Get An Amen? Not only is there some interesting history into a familiar sound but interesting concerns about copyright and ownership and creativity.

Both auto-tune'd music and the Amen Break are like the famous Wilhelm scream. Once you know what they sound like you'll hear it everywhere.

Whether you want to or not.


Lene Andersen said...

I love the Wilhelm scream!

There are days where I'd like my computer start up sound to sound like that...

David G said...

Not that I want to be an enabler... but the Wilhelm scream seems to have fallen into the public domain and is available at archive.org.

Instead of the sound of my computer starting up I'd make it the sound of my computer shutting down or maybe it should just replace the boring error beep.

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