Doctor Who & The Earworm

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Baby girl, I said tonight is your lucky night. Peter Andre along wid Christopher Morley on de mic...

After Under The Lake's revelation that the words spoken by the ghosts of the Drum work along similar principles to an earworm, just like the time the Doctor was driven mad by getting Peter Andre's Mysterious Girl stuck in his head for two whole weeks, let us pause and take a look at just what that phrase means.

The word itself has its root in the German ohrwurm, and in essence it refers to a repetitive tune/melody which becomes stuck in the listener's mind. Doctor Who has of course dealt with it before- remember the drumbeat which drove the Master insane, based on the heartbeat of a Time Lord?

Much research has been conducted into the phenomenon, with some surprising findings! Obviously musical taste is very much an individual thing, and so it will come as no surprise that Dr Vicky Williamson of Goldsmith's College, London, found the same applied to earworms. Speaking in 2012 during her own studies into the funky worm, she said:
"When I had 1,000 earworm songs in my database, there were only about half a dozen or so that had been named more than once - that's how heterogeneous the response was."
James Kellaris of the University of Cincinatti's own work researching the subject also turned up similar findings. He termed the earworm a sort of cognitive itch,
"It is like the familiar pattern of itching and scratching. The only way to 'scratch' a cognitive itch is to rehearse the responsible tune mentally. The process may start involuntarily, as the brain detects an incongruity or something 'exceptional' in the musical stimulus. The ensuing mental repetition may exacerbate the 'itch,' such that the mental rehearsal becomes largely involuntary, and the individual feels trapped in a cycle or feedback loop."
And he had managed to isolate three key elements which could give a song a similar effect to that which Mysterious Girl had on the Doctor! They are-
  • Repetition: One theme song that respondents reported as getting stuck in their heads often was Mission: Impossible. "A repeated phrase, motif or sequence might be suggestive of the very act of repetition itself, such that the brain echoes the pattern automatically as the musical information is processed" he says.
  • Musical simplicity: Simpler songs appear more likely to make your brain itch. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of getting Barney's "I Love You, You Love Me" song stuck can attest to that. Generally, children's songs are more prone to getting stuck than classical music.
  • Incongruity: When a song does something unexpected, it can also spark a cognitive itch. Examples include the irregular time signatures of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" or the song "America" from West Side Story. Unpredictable melodic patterns or an unexpectedly articulated individual note can have the same impact.
Jack Pudwell, writing for the Guardian in Broken Record Syndrome, chronicled his experiences of living with musical hallucinations, a more severe form of the earworm.
"I have a song looping in my head from the moment I wake until the moment I drift off to sleep – with absolutely no let-up in between. The earworm usually takes the form of one or two bars from a familiar song repeating incessantly, until another one finally pops into my head to replace it.

It’s a never-ending cycle. The source is often the last thing I heard on TV or simply the last piece of music I happened to think of. It’s easily triggered: something as innocuous as overhearing the word “groove” can set off the chorus to Earth, Wind & Fire’s Let's Groove. It can often take me a minute or two just to realise its origin.

Unfortunately, there’s no clear medical explanation for my chronic condition – beyond murmurings of OCD and auditory imagery loops, I’ve realised that “earworm” is too meagre a term to describe this hellish affliction. Ear kraken or cochlea wolf would be more apt."
Did someone mention wolf?

Musical hallucinations are different from earworms. Ear worms affect nine out of ten of us at least once, and are caused when the parts of the brain responsible for processing sound are persistently activated. Whereas musical hallucination also has persistent activity, but it takes place within the brain, rather than being triggered by external sound.

So all the more reason to take apart the TARDIS radio, as pop music has played a bigger role than that for which it's often credited since Doctor Who was revived in 2005. The Ninth Doctor was seen enjoying airings of what passed as classical music in the eyes & ears of those who had gathered to watch The End Of The World...

As if to reinforce the Doctor's alien nature, David Bowie's Starman is then heard during Aliens Of London. Was there ever a more succinct summation of the appeal of the Time Lord?
There's a starman waiting in the sky
He'd like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds
There's more. Father's Day, set in 1987, gives us two of the big earworms of the time. Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up & Never Can Say Goodbye by the Communards are the songs in question, while somehow Don't Mug Yourself by The Streets, from 2002, plays on Pete Tyler's car radio.

Glenn Miller got a boost when his music featured prominently in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances - we hear Moonlight Serenade & In The Mood. Of course, eventually the Doctor does show off his moves... 

...He'll do similar two selves later at Amy & Rory's wedding to a little earwom from Queen...

"Right then, everyone. I'll move my box. You're going to need the space. I only came for the dancing."
Speaking of dancing, there's the Master's love of Rogue Traders to consider.
"Here come the drums!!!"

ELO, get not one but three nods in Love & Monsters via the use of Mr Blue Sky, Turn To Stone & Don't Bring Me Down...

You might also remember Muse's Supermassive Black Hole booming through the TARDIS sound system from The Rebel Flesh, and then there was that earworm Susan experienced from John Smith & The Common Men!

So, far from a one-hit wonder, the series itself may be to blame for many an earworm experienced by many a viewer, as the Doctor clearly has a bit of a thing for pop. As he reassures Nancy in The Doctor Dances...
"Twenty years till pop music- you're going to love it."
Though as he might later have added, until it gets stuck in your head to the point of desperation!

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