The Songs Stuck In Our Heads

Biology And Evolution Help Explain Why We Can't Rid Ourselves Of Things Like Abba's Music

November 22, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

"Mamma mia, here I go again / My my, how can I resist you?"

If only you could. But, oh, those alliterative "m's," those 17 syncopated syllables - chances are that by the time you reached the end of the first sentence, ABBA's familiar melody had forcibly taken possession of every single one of your brain cells. And there it will remain, until it is driven out by a different tune that's equally ... er, unforgettable.

"If you change your mind, I'm the first in line / Honey, I'm still free, take a chance on me."

Sorry, but resistance really is futile, especially since Baltimore will soon be getting a double dose of the music of the 1970s Swedish pop group. On Tuesday, the stage version of "Mamma Mia" trips into the Hippodrome Theatre for eight performances, while over the weekend, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall welcomes the highly rated ABBA tribute band Waterloo.

Though the original ABBA had disbanded by 1982, some 27 years later, its music is still going gangbusters, partly on the strength of the Broadway show (now in its eighth year), but mostly because of the songs' catchy melodies.

It turns out that there are biological and evolutionary reasons that explain why so-called "earworms" get stuck in our heads, and why it's so hard to get rid of them. These neurological factors, combined with historical accident, may help to explain the enduring appeal of the foursome consisting of Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Bj?rn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Agnetha F?ltskog.

Daniel Levitin - record producer, McGill University neuroscientist and author of the best-selling "This Is Your Brain on Music" - is in a better position than most to ruminate on what makes earworms so insidious. (In fact, he's one of the guys who coined the term.)

He says our species is hard-wired from birth to make educated guesses about what will happen next. It's a key survival tool; if our ancestors could devise a hunch about the path a stampeding boar was likely to take, they could jump out of the way.

"The human brain is a giant prediction machine," Levitin says. "Some evolutionary psychologists trace this development to the time that primates went in search of new food sources and left the cover of the trees for the open plains, where it was more dangerous. Music is an exercise for the developing infant brain."

We learn by repetition, so music is full of recurring rhythms, lyrics and motifs. And that's why, when we hear a few bars of a familiar song, we mentally lunge in to fill the gap - whether we want to or not.

But it appears that there's an art to writing music that challenges our brains exactly the right amount.

"The task of songwriter is to come up with music that is partly cliche and partly novel," says Levitin, who in the past has worked with such artists as Stevie Wonder and k.d. lang. "They have to get the balance just right. If they err too much on the side of the familiar, people will get bored. If their music is too unpredictable, people will get confused."

But music isn't merely educational - it's also intensely pleasurable, and ABBA's Ulvaeus was extremely astute at identifying sounds to which listeners instinctively respond.

According to Carl Magnus Palm, who wrote the liner notes for "The Definitive Collection":

"Like all good pop lyricists, Bj?rn always maintained that the sound[s] of the words were equal in importance to their meaning, and often even more important.

" 'Take a Chance on Me' is a prime example of this philosophy. The sounds 't', 'k' and 'ch' lodged themselves in Bj?rn's brain, and were transformed into the phrase 'take a chance.' "

In addition, ABBA's lyrics contain lots of "long" vowels, (the 'a' in "take" and the "e" in "me") which appeal to Western ears, and fewer "soft" vowels (the 'a' in "chance.").

"Consonants like 't' and 'k' are considered hard stops," Levitin says. "They're especially effective in a fast song with a dance tempo. They give the lyric a momentum and a secondary rhythmic quality. Long vowels are thought to be purer sounds than short vowels, and we find them more pleasing. It has to do with the way the throat resonates when it produces them."

This might account for why some songs dig into our brains, but it doesn't explain why ABBA's music remains an active cultural force while other pop groups have been consigned to the past. After all, The Mamas and the Papas wrote engaging melodies, and The Beach Boys came up with hooks so sturdy they could land a whale.

Chance determined that the musical coming to the Hippodrome is called "Mamma Mia" and not, say, "California Girls," according to Judy Craymer, the creative genius/criminal mastermind who in 1987 first conceived of a stage show based on ABBA's songs.

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