I do not sing much as I work. This is perhaps marginally more of a relief to my students than to my co-workers – my students, after all, are paying for
my presence; my co-workers are merely paying the price for my presence – but they should be aware that I am fighting the good fight on their behalf,
because I am, like everyone else, prone to earworms.
Earworms (or, to musicologists, involuntary musical imagery) are a facet of entrainment, the almost exclusively human capacity to group-synchronise to a given pulse. In other words, the repetition, usually of a refrain in a song or a rhythmic sequence, sparks an intuitive and often collective response in all of us, be it foot-tapping, swaying, dancing, or singing.
Psychomusicologists incline to the belief that the earworm is a ‘snapshot’ of a given song, a sort of storage index; from that earworm, the whole song can be reconstituted. And it is usually the refrain of the song that sticks.
Repetition lies at the heart of it. In a bizarre demonstration of the association of repetition and song, created by the neuro-psychologist Diana Deutsch, the repetition of a snatch of spoken language takes on song-like qualities, even when replaced in its original stream of speech. We are programmed, in other words, to encode language in song-like patterns (hear the two sound demos here - well worth a listen).
And good students of languages know this. One of the best language learners I ever knew told me that she started to learn Italian by imitating the cadence and intonation of spoken utterance long before she understood what the utterance meant. The sound appealed to her, and she copied it, unthinkingly. Such as approach would not work for everyone, but it stands diametrically opposed to the rather less compelling logico-constructive approach, wherein the language is treated as a rule-based system in which individual packets of utterance can be built up into fluent streams of speech. But even in that case, most students become aware, sooner or later, that repetition of key elements lies at the heart of success.
So who knows? Perhaps I should let go and sing more in class, and gift my students a few earworms of good English. There is, after all, an argument that entrainment is selected for evolutionarily because it induces the blood-trance, the state of mind necessary to engage in mammoth-hunting or tribal warfare. And inducement of the blood-trance is a language-learning tool I have yet to explore.
For more on entrainment, refrain, and earworms, have a look at the What Literature Knows About your Brain blog, here.