Earworms, lyrics, and tunes in the brain

Last time I left off quoting Lady GaGa's masterwork Poker Face. I continue to rag on it because I can't seem to escape it's repetitive and forced impingement on my vulnerable eardrums. Unfortunately, the city doesn't afford much auditory privacy and some people in the subway are really determined to lose their hearing before old age. Whatever happened to iPod etiquette?

According to Oliver Sack's book Musicophilia I've got a bad case of the earworm. This is when a piece of music repeats compulsively in one's mind. But if I hate the song so much why is my brain constantly replaying it over and over again? Sacks similarly asks:

What is happening psychologically and neurologically, when a tune or a jingle takes possession of one like this? What are the characteristics that make a tune or a song 'dangerous or 'infectious' in this way? Is it some oddity of sound, of timbre or rhythm or melody? Is it repetition? Or is it arousal of special emotional resonances or associations?

Sacks is onto something here when he makes mention of rhythm and repetition. "Poker Face" has an absurd amount of repetition. The word "mum" is repeated 40 times in the song. The phrase "can't read my" is spoken 30 times. (A link on how to get rid of earworm, wish I had found it sooner)

In any case, have you ever wondered how the brain actually processes lyrics and tunes? There's a hot debate as to whether they are represented as separate components or integrated throughout...but since New Scientist seems to have already covered the paper (doh! I just found out a second ago)...I leave you with the main findings of Sammler et. al's paper published in the latest issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. I also leave you with a gift...in hopes to infect you with an earworm, but in a good way.

...the left mid-STS showed an interaction of the adaptation effects for lyrics and tunes, suggesting an integrated processing of the two components at prelexical, phonemic processing levels. The degree of integration decayed toward more anterior regions of the left STS, where the lack of such an interaction and the stronger adaptation for lyrics than for tunes was suggestive of an independent processing of lyrics, perhaps resulting from the processing of meaning. Finally, evidence for an integrated representation of lyrics and tunes was found in the left dorsal precentral gyrus (PrCG), possibly relating to the build-up of a vocal code for singing in which musical and linguistic features of song are fused. Overall, these results demonstrate that lyrics and tunes are processed at varying degrees of integration (and separation) through the consecutive processing levels allocated along the posterior–anterior axis of the left STS and the left PrCG.

Sacks, O. (2007). Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf

Sammler, D., Baird, A., Valabregue, R., Clement, S., Dupont, S., Belin, P., & Samson, S. (2010). The Relationship of Lyrics and Tunes in the Processing of Unfamiliar Songs: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Adaptation Study Journal of Neuroscience, 30 (10), 3572-3578 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2751-09.2010


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