Darling, They’re Playing Our Tune (DTPOT)

DTPOT: Ilsa-Ingrid Bergman listening to Sam playing it again.
— Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake … Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By.

There is a good chance that the tune will have started sounding in your head as soon as you read this line. Maybe Ingrid Bergman’s shiny eyes too will come to mind, her face reflecting memories playing through her (Ilsa’s) mind. Memories shared with her former lover Rick. “Their tune”.

In a famous essay Umberto Eco has asked the question what makes Casablanca such an enduringly fascinating movie, despite the fact that “aesthetically speaking (or by any strict critical standards) Casablanca is a very mediocre film”. His answer is that it employs clichés, archetypes, or myths “wholesale”: it is a “tangle”, a “dance”, even an “orgy” of the kind of patterns and situations that make good stories (he doesn’t make much distinction between cliché, archetype, and myth). And Eco concludes that “Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology. […] Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”

(By the way, it might be interesting to compare Casablanca in this respect with Die Zauberflöte.)

What Eco leaves out of his discussion is the very substantial part music plays in the film (music by Max Steiner, with As Time Goes By borrowed from Herman Hupfeld). Except that he does mention one cliché, or archetype, that involves music: They’re Playing Our Song. Ilsa and Rick reviving sweet and sour memories, triggered by a popular song.

DTPOT Enters Psychology

I don’t know whether Eco here accidentally or knowingly uses (nearly) literally an expression introduced by music psychologist John Booth Davies, who in a 1978 book speaks of the Darling They’re Playing Our Tune phenomenon. Davies introduces the concept, oddly, in a context of mental conditioning.

The idea here is that people learn certain associations, which in the end lead to an emotional feeling and/or response, in much the same way that Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate when they heard a tone from a tuning fork (1927). The classic example of this is perhaps the ‘Darling, they’re playing our tune’ phenomenon. The lady from whose mouth this apocryphal saying is supposed to have emanated has acquired a specific emotional response to a specific tune simply because she heard it at a time when some other pleasurable business was taking place, at some time in the past. Now the tune itself makes her feel good simply because she associates it with the previous pleasant experiences. Even the most unmusical people usually have an associative response of this type to at least one or two tunes. (A man might therefore justifiably feel some alarm if his unmusical wife suddenly develops an apparently spontaneous liking for a new tune.) (68-69)

(The slightly sexist undertone of Davies’ quips may show their date.)

Sam, let me hear that tuning fork again. It doesn’t sound convincing, does it. And Davies admits that

In practice, however, a great many people have a tune which is of special emotional significance to them, and relatively few experience this same state on hearing the sound of a train. From this point of view, the tune and the train are not completely equivalent therefore. As a partial explanation for this fact we may note that not even all tunes are equivalent in this respect. Tunes of the DTPOT (Darling, They’re Playing Our Tune) type are usually drawn from the ranks of ‘Songs for swinging lovers’ or something similar, where the words and the mood of the music are somehow appropriate to the events with which they become associated. […] people who use the overture William Tell or The Ride of the Valkyries as a DTPOT tune are definitely in a minority.” (69)

(Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! is a 1956 Frank Sinatra Album.)

In the remainder of this curious chapter Davies seems to be vacillating between a behaviourist bias (it’s all a matter of random stimuli) and his more reasonable suspicion that, after all, the qualities of the music are not entirely irrelevant.

DTPOT, introduced more or less as a joke, has become a technical term in music psychology. More recent instances still show a tendency to put Davies’ sentimental ladies in the same box as salivating dogs. For Patrik N. Juslin, for instance, the term applies to “personal and idiosyncratic associations based on arbitrary and contingent relationships between the music experienced and various non-musical factors related to emotion” (103).

According to psychiatrist (and former street musician) Manfred Spitzer, DTPOT associations are “mostly arbitrary” (eher zufällig), and this may in practice be the “strongest, but theoretically the least interesting connection between music and emotions […]”. (387)

While Davies and others speak of DTPOT as a phenomenon, and an associated type of tune, another well-known music psychologist, John Sloboda, interprets it as a “theory of musical response” particularly suited to teenage sentiments.

The majority of Western adults seem to remember particularly well the popular tunes of their adolescent years, and retain a strong emotional response to them. In one of the earliest contemporary texts on the psychology of music (Davies, 1978), this aspect of music psychology was wittily characterized as the Darling, They’re Playing Our Tune’ theory of musical response. (348)

Sloboda also notes that

[…] the present experience retrieves the thoughts and feelings of an earlier experience of that music, rather than of the other events which accompanied the music. Such experiences are often positive, sometimes profoundly so. (349)

DTPOT of course implies fond memories, or pleasurable states of mind. But on a more theoretical level, I doubt that such experiences should be set apart. Musical associations may have an equally strong negative value. Again, Casablanca provides us with textbook examples: Die Wacht am Rhein, Deutschland über alles. The enemy’s tunes.

Reliving the Past

What makes the DTPOT phenomenon (broadly conceived) psychologically interesting is, I think, the fact that unlike most other memory prompters, music evolves in time. Even music remembered involves a temporal flow (how fast can you play that tune in your head?), and this may allow other memories to emerge out of their frozen, timeless state, and become lived experience again.

Besides, DTPOT is an inexhaustible dramaturgical device. One interesting variant is found in the episode from the unsurpassed TV detective series A Touch of Frost, titled No Other Love (1992)An elderly woman stabs her husband to death because his incessant grumbling won’t allow her to listen to our Jean’s song. The deeper tragedy is the man’s unoutspoken sense of guilt over the death of their daughter Jean.

— Please Harry listen to this … Can’t you think of anyone but yourself for once? One song! That’s all I wanna hear! … That was our Jean’s song.

In this case, a Rodgers and Hammerstein song interpreted by Ronnie Hilton (Nr. 1 on the UK hitlist in 1956). A typical DTPOT tune, or rather, Song for Swinging Lovers.

— References —
Davies, John Booth. The Psychology of Music. Hutchinson, 1978.
Eco, Umberto. Casablanca, or, the Cliches Are Having a Ball. In Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, eds. Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Bedford Books, 1994. 260- 264.
Juslin, Patrik N. From Mimesis to Catharsis: Expression, Perception, and Induction of Emotion in Music. In Dorothy Miell et al. eds. Musical Communication. Oxford University Press, 2005. 85-116.
Sloboda, John. Exploring the Musical Mind : Cognition, Emotion, Ability, Function. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Spitzer, Manfred. Musik im Kopf. 2. Aufl. Schattauer, 2014.