There you are, minding your business, drinking your morning coffee, reading the funnies. Then-- click --it happens.
I'm gon-na sit right down and write my-self a let-terrrrr . . . .
There it is. That song again. Oozing from your subconscious into your breakfast tranquillity.
. . . and ma-a-ke be-lieve it ca-a-a-ame from yoooou . . . .
How long has it been in your head? Since last night? Two days ago? Three?
Your first conscious bow to it was a night or two ago over the dinner dishes, when the counterpoint between your breathing and the lapping dishwater sounded like the refrain from that very song. Next thing you knew, you were hearing it over and over in your mind--sometimes breathing it, sometimes thinking it--as if the turntable of your gray matter was on automatic replay. Where does it come from, this Muzak of the Mind? How does it trip the repeat mechanism, staying with you, staying with you, staying with you. . . ? Why do you not even notice it sometimes until the breath or the rhythm of your feet falls in sync to remind you, I CAN'T GET THAT SONG OUT OF MY HEAD!
It's as old as the first tribal rain songs and common as the common cold. Science has a name for it: "obsessive musical thought," but science doesn't know exactly what causes it or what to do about it.
People who do think about such things, from hypnotists to otological neurophysiologists, offer a number of explanations: You may be an obsessive type. Or something may be bothering you. Or--the obvious--you could have heard the same TV jingle one too many times.
But the experts agree on one count: The brain is organized to repeat itself, and often does, independently, relentlessly, outside the realm of conscious control.
"Just because we have minds doesn't mean we know how to operate them," says Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has written books on how people get rid of unwanted thoughts.
Think of it: at any given noontime at any downtown intersection, 100 furious cross-walkers could be hearing 100 different internal melodies, snatches of TV jingles, traces of "Happy Birthday," strains of the gnawing mantra, PLAY-that-FUNK-ky-MU-sic . . . .
But getting rid of it, mind experts say, is easier said than done, since the reason you have it in the first place might well have something to do with your personality. One theory suggests that obsessively bent people are more susceptible.
"I'd call it a 'normal obsession,' " says Dr. Dennis Munjack, a professor of psychiatry at USC and specialist in obsessive-compulsive behavior. "It tends to be a cognitive style. Some people just tend to ruminate on things."
Experts who study the hearing nervous system say it begins with a sound or string of sounds. It may be something on the radio. Maybe something back as far as early childhood--the loping rhythm of the Roy Rogers anthem "Happy Trails to You," a lullaby, the whir of a fussy vacuum cleaner.
Those sounds, like all experiences, are coded in memory in vast data banks in various parts of the brain. If we hear or do something again and again, neurophysiology explains-- Hap-py TRA-A-A-A-ails to yoooou. . .-- certain sectors in the nervous system become deeper, like paths in a riverbed deepening under recurrent eddies of water. Those deepened paths then act like magnets to the sounds that made the paths deeper in the first place.
"The fact is, some people have a facile ability for tonal sequence which is not necessarily music-related. It's more fundamental than music," says Michael Merzenich, professor of otological neurophysiology at the UC San Francisco Medical Center.
Which explains why some self-described tone-deaf people have as many musical thoughts as the church choir director and why some professional musicians hear no head music at all.
A tone-sensitive brain that's idle and dying for something creative to do could turn the down-up-down-up da-DA-da-DA whine of a police siren into the comfortable path carved out by the tonally similar theme from "Lawrence of Arabia" or the theme song from that dreaded "Jeopardy!" All it really takes to hook into a musical thought is a bored unconscious mind and some external trigger. Any trigger.
"I called a friend of mine," says David Gere, 29, a San Francisco music critic, "and her answering machine said, 'Hi. This is Rachel. Tell me a story.' I immediately clicked into an old Sunday School song, Tell Me the Sto-ry of Je-sus. . . . In fact, I sang it into her machine. And she's Jewish."
"You want to spend a horrible night?" asks Linda Newgard, 35, former high school teacher and Tustin Hills mother of two small children. "Try walking around the house picking up toys and hearing Raffi songs in your head. The m-o-o-ore we get to-ge-ther, to-ge-ther, to-ge-ther, The mo-o-o-re we get to-ge-ther, the HAPP-ier we'll be. . . . I hear songs from Gymboree, from Mister Rogers: Who are the peo-ple in your neigh-bor-hood. . . ? I think, 'This is serious. I've got to get a job.' "
Once the song gets into the head, it might stay there for a number of reasons. Fatigue, stress or intoxication tend to heighten the brain's tendency to repeat itself, the mind people say.
Wegner--whose book, "White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts," describes the normal tendency to obsess ideas you're trying to ignore--says the fact that you notice a song is recurring can make it stick with a vengeance. It's like the world becoming an ice cream sundae when you're trying to diet.
Or it could mean your subconscious is telling you that deep down, something is really bothering you.
"The left part of the brain, which has an executive function, might say, 'Why in God's name can't I get rid of this?' " says Asa DeMatteo, a neurophysiologist who heads the Center on Deafness at UCSF Medical Center.
"The right part of the brain--which deals in melody, rhythm and creativity, and which can work independently--has no explanation," DeMatteo says. "There may well be a reason for why the song becomes obsessive. But that can only be surmised by the left brain."
Or the therapist.
"I had a client once who came out with the Beatles song 'Let It Be' when she was in a trance," says San Francisco hypnotherapist Janell Moon. "The message was clear: stop pushing things."
Another dimension to the head-music saga arises with the advertising industry's billion-dollar interest in how music affects emotions: To what degree are internal rhythms and messages governed by mass-media marketing?
"When you think about it-- Double your pleasure with Doublemint Gum-- the jingles we grow up with become part of us," says David W. Stewart, a professor of marketing at USC's School of Business, who has done research on music in advertising.
"They may be intrusive; they may irritate. But for some people, they can be kind of pleasant--like your own personal soundtrack," he says.
The ancient prairie people didn't have to worry about radio, TV, CDs and VCRs. They only had nature, and their tribal mantras and prayer. Some experts say our prairie-people brains aren't set up to withstand the barrage of mass-media stimuli. As a result, obsessive musical thought might become harder and harder to shake.
It's "a big challenge to the auditory nervous system," says hearing expert Merzenich.
Once you understand it, though, how do you control it?
"Most of the time, people can push 'normal obsessions,' like obsessive musical thought, out of their heads. But some people just aren't as good pusher-outers as others," says Munjack.
The worst pusher-outer in head-music history was probably Robert Schumann, the 19th-Century composer driven mad by his pathological musical hallucinations.
Along with his other psychiatric problems, Schumann was plagued by the "inner hearing of wondrously beautiful pieces of music, fully formed . . . like distant brasses," sounds he incorporated into compositions for a while. But later they turned demonic, following him to his death in a mental institution.
Peter Ostwald, UCSF psychiatry professor and author of "Robert Schumann--The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius," says the everyday musical thinker has it much easier. "People have different ways of controlling it--just like people have different ways of controlling the hiccups."
Those who can't push, for example, might embrace the song, singing it through, playing it loud on the tape machine, anything so the unconscious mind gets sick of it, gives up and goes home.
Others substitute a better song.
Maybe you could create a sound track for your entire life . . . learn to switch on "Ride of the Valkyries" on your way to a job interview . . . turn on the "Theme Song From Rocky" for a tough business meeting where you'll lay down the letter of the law . . . LETTER! . . . Oh no . . . There it goes I'm gon-na sit right down and write my-self a let-terrrr. . . .