May I Share My Earworm?


Voilà: my new Philosophy & Music videoclip, which should warm you up to my three lecture course on music — how it moves us, why it matters.

Don’t forget to turn on the sound. Unless you’re allergic to earworms: the music I made to go with it has been playing in my mind for two weeks, barely going to rest at night.

Memorability is an essential feature of what we tend to call a “good tune” (not, of course, of good music). Memorability and “catchiness”, which implies memorability, but also something seemingly contradictory — the feeling that it is new, yet familiar — the déjà-ouï.

Certainly music may be both. Often the familiarity will derive from some background pattern (primarily harmonic), the novelty from foreground features — typically, melodic. Most of the world’s music is based on prefab patterns. The scope for creating new melodies to a given harmonic pattern is not infinite. So, an appealing, potentially popular tune will never be 100% new, or even 50%, I would say, though there is no way of measuring musical novelty.

And the catchier it sounds — the stronger the feeling that it has a right to be there (as I feel it, from the maker’s perspective) — the greater the risk that actually it has already been there. You may carefully and deliberately craft your tune from scratch, changing a note here and there, but still have no guarantee that the unpredicted and unpredictable end result (voilá) won’t happen to be a duplicate of something that has been out there all along.

But that’s no reason to silence the worm.