Earworms and Air Conducting

Have you ever heard the word “earworm”? It’s a melody that gets into your brain and won’t go away — a tune you keep humming over and over until you eventually find a way to dislodge it, or it mercifully evaporates on its own. “Air conducting” is the reflexive waving of arms that happens when you hear music that is so compelling it engages your invisible conductor’s baton to keep time.

I was thinking about earworms and air conducting recently when I heard the Fanfare from THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA (most familiar from the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) by Richard Strauss. This particular music has the power to generate an earworm, inspire air conducting AND cause spontaneous air-timpani-playing, too! (At least it did for me!) It brought to mind other music with especially strong magnetic powers: George Frideric Handel’s HALLELUJAH CHORUS from his oratorio MESSIAH, for example. Handel had a particular gift for writing catchy tunes that draw listeners in and make us want to sing along. I have been on road trips during which everyone in the car joined in to sing along with that one. If you have ever attended a performance of MESSIAH, you probably experienced the audience spontaneously standing up when the HALLELUJAH CHORUS began. That’s because, according to legend, when King George attended a performance of MESSIAH he stood when the HALLELUJAH CHORUS began. Since protocol dictated that when the King stands, everyone stands, everyone in attendance rose to their feet. Was Handel’s music so compelling to the King, so mesmerizing, so dramatic, that he couldn’t help himself? Or did the King just need a stretch break during the long oratorio, which lasts around 2 1/2 hours? We’ll probably never know for sure, but either scenario is plausible.

The main theme of Franz Schubert’s UNFINISHED SYMPHONY is another composition that tends to lodge in my brain. (Forever edified, for better or worse, by the words superimposed to help generations of people remember it: “This is the Symphony that Schubert wrote and never finished …”) It can feel fun and cathartic to sing along or air conduct with a snippet from a monumental piece of music! The downside of earworms, though, is that they are not always generated by great works like Handel’s HALLELUJAH CHORUS or Schubert’s UNFINISHED SYMPHONY — sometimes they are commercial jingles or other insipid tunes.

What music typically gives you an earworm? Are there particular compositions that draw you in, or is there a “type” of music that does it? Do you have any tried and true methods of dislodging earworms? Do you ever find yourself air conducting and, if so, what kinds of music creates that impulse? Have you ever been “caught” playing air timpani (or guitar, or violin) when you didn’t realize you were doing it? Please share your experiences!