Fun Fact - Ear Worm

An ear worm is a song or jingle that you just can't get out of your head. Not the complete song, but a fragment, perhaps the chorus, or just jumbled pieces of the song. It runs around and around in your head, even while you're trying to concentrate at work or at school. It doesn't have to be a good song - sometimes it's a song you don't even like! Edgar Allan Poe wrote, in The Imp of the Perverse, "It is quite a common thing to be thus annoyed with the ringing in our ears, or rather in our memories, of the burthen of some ordinary song, or some unimpressive snatches from an opera." He wrote this in 1845, when music was, for the average person, a rarity - yet the phenomenon was still well known.

A couple days ago I brought groceries in from the car, and the last song on the radio was 8675309, by Tommy Tutone. This is a rather bad song in my opinion, certainly the lyrics are pedestrian, but the song is well engineered and ably performed, and has been on the radio consistently from 1982 to present. The song is undeniably a hit. It's catchy, and that's for sure.

In 1982, hapless people of all area codes who happened to have this phone number quickly changed it, to avoid nuisance calls at all hours of the day and night. "Hey, is Jenny there? Ha ha ha!" click. Today the song simmers in the distant background of our consciousness, displaced by Taylor Swift and Green Day. It is once again reasonably safe to have 8675309 as your phone number, though you may still receive a crank call from time to time. My children do recognize the song when it comes on the radio, and if pressed for an answer they could probably come up with the phone number, but it is definitely not on their playlist.

This song has a high ear-worm factor, higher than most. It doesn't matter whether you are young or old, whether you are hearing it for the first time or the hundredth, if it is the last song you heard on the radio it will probably roll around in your brain for quite some time. And so, on this particular day, As I was putting groceries away, I kept hearing:

8675309, 8675309
Jenny, I got your number
I need to make you mine
8675309, 8675309
Jenny, don't change your number
8675309, 8675309
I got it, (I got it)
something something on the wall
8675309, 8675309

These aren't the precise lyrics in the precise order, and most of the song is left on the cuttingroom floor, but that's the hallmark of an ear worm, isn't it? Just a few snatches, over and over, in a jumbled order. Sometimes a couple of phrases play concurrently in the mind, which I can't represent in a linear transcript such as this. Perhaps "8675309" and "I got it" overlap in the brain. This goes on and on, until you run to your computer and play another song, or work on a mental task that requires your full attention, like Spock pushing Redjac out of the Enterprise computer by making it calculate all the digits of π.

It may seem counterintuitive, but an ear worm does not require music. It is a side effect of the wiring in our brain, a combination of auditory processing and short term memory, which have existed for millions of years; whereas music is relatively new. Thus you might become fixated on a poem, a chant, or even a drumbeat. Mark Twain wrote a short story, in 1876, about a persistent ear worm that was little more than a poem. In that century, and all centuries prior, music was not a significant part of daily life. Radio did not become commonplace until 1930. Before 1900 there was simply no music for most, except perhaps the fiddle on Friday night at the square dance, and hymns on Sunday morning. If you wanted to hear a song as you planted crops or fed your livestock, you sang it, and rather badly at that. It's hard to imagine the dearth of sensory input prior to 1900. The birds, the animals, and the conversation of your friends and family - that's all there was to hear. Throughout one long cold winter, Laura Ingalls played with her sisters and some corn cob dolls. That was it. Occasionally her father would play his fiddle, and in that sense she was lucky; most children didn't even have that. If we were suddenly transported back to that time, the relative sensory deprivation would be oppressive. It's hard to imagine the pretechnological life that our ancestors led. And yet they lived their lives, and survived through harsh conditions, and loved, and married, and had children down through the ages.

Within this quiet world, Mark Twain heard the conductor recite the fares and colors as he punched the passengers' train tickets, or perhaps he saw the fares posted on a placard at the station. In any case, the words stayed in his head to the point of distraction, almost like a song. I don't know what novel he was working on at the time, Huckleberry Finn perhaps, but he had to set it aside, at least for a day, and in its stead he wrote a short story about his ear worm, taking it to the extreme of course. The term "ear worm" did not enter English until 1980, so he simply called it a jingle. I present the story below, since most people have never read it.

Twain compares the jingle to music, though it is certainly not music. Still it has a rhythm, and it takes up residence in the brain, where it is not easily dislodged. You too, after reading the story, may find yourself saying, over and over again, "Punch, brothers, punch with care. Punch in the presence of the passenjare." I know I did, when I first read it some 40 years ago. It really is catchy.

I don't know if the train ticket prices are accurate, but they probably are - since Twain wrote for the masses. Apparently, in 1876, you could travel by train from one town to the next for three cents. Six cents took you farther down the line, and eight cents might get you to the next state. It's amazing what 150 years of inflation has done to our money.

The three fares correspond to three tickets of different colors. Blue and pink you know well, but I was not familiar with buff. Buff is an early term for brownish yellow, the color of untanned leather. Thus the six-cent fare was indicated by a buff ticket. These are the tickets that are purchased, and then punched by the conductor - punched with care. And now for the short story, Punch, Brothers, Punch, by Mark Twain.

Will the reader please to cast his eye over the following lines, and see if he can discover anything harmful in them?

Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

Punch, brothers! punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

I came across these jingling rhymes in a newspaper, a little while ago, and read them a couple of times. They took instant and entire possession of me. All through breakfast they went waltzing through my brain; and when, at last, I rolled up my napkin, I could not tell whether I had eaten anything or not. I had carefully laid out my day's work the day before--thrilling tragedy in the novel which I am writing. I went to my den to begin my deed of blood. I took up my pen, but all I could get it to say was, "Punch in the presence of the passenjare." I fought hard for an hour, but it was useless. My head kept humming, "A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare, a buff trip slip for a six-cent fare," and so on and so on, without peace or respite. The day's work was ruined--I could see that plainly enough. I gave up and drifted down-town, and presently discovered that my feet were keeping time to that relentless jingle. When I could stand it no longer I altered my step. But it did no good; those rhymes accommodated themselves to the new step and went on harassing me just as before. I returned home, and suffered all the afternoon; suffered all through an unconscious and unrefreshing dinner; suffered, and cried, and jingled all through the evening; went to bed and rolled, tossed, and jingled right along, the same as ever; got up at midnight frantic, and tried to read; but there was nothing visible upon the whirling page except "Punch! punch in the presence of the passenjare." By sunrise I was out of my mind, and everybody marveled and was distressed at the idiotic burden of my ravings--"Punch! oh, punch! punch in the presence of the passenjare!"

Two days later, on Saturday morning, I arose, a tottering wreck, and went forth to fulfil an engagement with a valued friend, the Rev. Mr.------, to walk to the Talcott Tower, ten miles distant. He stared at me, but asked no questions. We started. Mr.------ talked, talked, talked as is his wont. I said nothing; I heard nothing. At the end of a mile, Mr.------ said "Mark, are you sick? I never saw a man look so haggard and worn and absent-minded. Say something, do!"

Drearily, without enthusiasm, I said: "Punch brothers, punch with care! Punch in the presence of the passenjare!"

My friend eyed me blankly, looked perplexed, then said:

"I do not think I get your drift, Mark. There does not seem to be any relevancy in what you have said, certainly nothing sad; and yet--maybe it was the way you said the words--I never heard anything that sounded so pathetic. What is--"

But I heard no more. I was already far away with my pitiless, heartbreaking "blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare, buff trip slip for a six-cent fare, pink trip slip for a three-cent fare; punch in the presence of the passenjare." I do not know what occurred during the other nine miles. However, all of a sudden Mr.------ laid his hand on my shoulder and shouted:

"Oh, wake up - wake up - wake up! Don't sleep all day! Here we are at the Tower, man? I have talked myself deaf and dumb and blind, and never got a response. Just look at this magnificent autumn landscape! Look at it - look at it! Feast your eye on it! You have traveled; you have seen boaster landscapes elsewhere. Come, now, deliver an honest opinion. What do you say to this?"__

I sighed wearily; and murmured:

"A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare, a pink trip slip for a three-cent fare, punch in the presence of the passenjare."

Rev. Mr. ------ stood there, very grave, full of concern, apparently, and looked long at me; then he said:

"Mark, there is something about this that I cannot understand. Those are about the same words you said before; there does not seem to be anything in them, and yet they nearly break my heart when you say them. Punch in the--how is it they go?"

I began at the beginning and repeated all the lines.

My friend's face lighted with interest. He said:

"Why, what a captivating jingle it is? It is almost music. It flows along so nicely. I have nearly caught the rhymes myself. Say them over just once more, and then I'll have them, sure."

I said them over. Then Mr. ------ said them. He made one little mistake, which I corrected. The next time and the next he got them right. Now a great burden seemed to tumble from my shoulders. That torturing jingle departed out of my brain, and a grateful sense of rest and peace descended upon me. I was light-hearted enough to sing; and I did sing for half an hour, straight along, as we went jogging homeward. Then my freed tongue found blessed speech again, and the pent talk of many a weary hour began to gush and flow. It flowed on and on, joyously, jubilantly, until the fountain was empty and dry. As I wrung my friend's hand at parting, I said:

"Haven't we had a royal good time? But now I remember, you haven't said a word for two hours. Come, come, out with something!"

The Rev. Mr.------ turned a lack-luster eye upon me, drew a deep sigh, and said, without animation, without apparent consciousness:

"Punch, brothers, punch with care? Punch in the presence of the passenjare!"

A pang shot through me as I said to myself, "Poor fellow, poor fellow! He has got it, now."

I did not see Mr.------ for two or three days after that. Then, on Tuesday evening, he staggered into my presence and sank dejectedly into a seat. He was pale, worn; he was a wreck. He lifted his faded eyes to my face and said:

"Ah, Mark, it was a ruinous investment that I made in those heartless rhymes. They have ridden me like a nightmare, day and night, hour after hour, to this very moment. Since I saw you I have suffered the torments of the lost. Saturday evening I had a sudden call, by telegraph, and took the night train for Boston. The occasion was the death of a valued old friend who had requested that I should preach his funeral sermon. I took my seat in the cars and set myself to framing the discourse. But I never got beyond the opening paragraph; for then the train started and the car-wheels began their 'clack, clack-clack-clack-clack, clack-clack! --clack-clack-clack!' and right away those odious rhymes fitted themselves to that accompaniment. For an hour I sat there and set a syllable of those rhymes to every separate and distinct clack the car-wheels made. Why, I was as fagged out, then, as if I had been chopping wood all day. My skull was splitting with headache. It seemed to me that I must go mad if I sat there any longer; so I undressed and went to bed. I stretched myself out in my berth, and--well, you know what the result was. The thing went right along, just the same. 'Clack-clack clack, a blue trip slip, clack-clack-clack, for an eight cent fare; clack-clack-clack, a buff trip slip, clack clack-clack, for a six-cent fare, and so on, and so on, and so on punch in the presence of the passenjare!' Sleep? Not a single wink! I was almost a lunatic when I got to Boston. Don't ask me about the funeral. I did the best I could, but every solemn individual sentence was meshed and tangled and woven in and out with 'Punch, brothers, punch with care, punch in the presence of the passenjare.' And the most distressing thing was that my delivery dropped into the undulating rhythm of those pulsing rhymes, and I could actually catch absent-minded people nodding time to the swing of it with their stupid heads. And, Mark, you may believe it or not, but before I got through the entire assemblage were placidly bobbing their heads in solemn unison, mourners, undertaker, and all. The moment I had finished, I fled to the anteroom in a state bordering on frenzy. Of course it would be my luck to find a sorrowing and aged maiden aunt of the deceased there, who had arrived from Springfield too late to get into the church. She began to sob, and said:

"'Oh, oh, he is gone, he is gone, and I didn't see him before he died!'

"'Yes!' I said, 'he is gone, he is gone, he is gone--oh, will this suffering never cease!'

"'You loved him, then? Oh, you too loved him!'

"'Loved him? Loved who?'

"'Why, my poor George, my poor nephew!'

"'Oh--him? Yes--oh, yes, yes. Certainly--certainly. Punch--punch--oh, this misery will kill me!'

"'Bless you, bless you, sir, for these sweet words! I, too, suffer in this dear loss. Were you present during his last moments?'

"'Yes. I--whose last moments?'

"'His. The dear departed's.'

"'Yes? Oh, yes--yes--yes? I suppose so, I think so, I don't know! Oh, certainly--I was there I was there!'

"'Oh, what a privilege, what a precious privilege! And his last words- -oh, tell me, tell me his last words? What did he say?'

"'He said--he said--oh, my head, my head, my head! He said--he said--he never said anything but Punch, punch, punch in the presence of the passenjare? Oh, leave me, madam! In the name of all that is generous, leave me to my madness, my misery, my despair!--a buff trip slip for a six-cent fare, a pink trip slip for a three-cent fare--endu--rance can no fur--ther go!--PUNCH in the presence of the passenjare!"

My friend's hopeless eyes rested upon mine a pregnant minute, and then he said impressively:

"Mark, you do not say anything. You do not offer me any hope. But, ah me, it is just as well--it is just as well. You could not do me any good. The time has long gone by when words could comfort me. Something tells me that my tongue is doomed to wag forever to the jigger of that remorseless jingle. There--there it is coming on me again: a blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare, a buff trip slip for a--"

Thus murmuring faint and fainter, my friend sank into a peaceful trance and forgot his sufferings in a blessed respite.

How did I finally save him from an asylum? I took him to a neighboring university and made him discharge the burden of his persecuting rhymes into the eager ears of the poor, unthinking students. How is it with them, now? The result is too sad to tell. Why did I write this article? It was for a worthy, even a noble, purpose. It was to warn you, reader, if you should came across those merciless rhymes, to avoid them--avoid them as you would a pestilence.

Further Reading

Ear worm
Wolf in the Fold