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Change of Seasons

Those Summer Song 'Ear Worms'

Desiree Cooper

Angela Kim

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Psychologist and author Dan Levitin
(Arsenio Coroa)
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This weekend, don't be surprised if you catch yourself singing a song you can't get out of your head. It's summer, and that means that elusive summer song is about to make its way into your brain. There's something about summer that makes us want to create a soundtrack...

Do you remember songs from your past summers? Dan Levitin is a psychologist and author of the book "This is Your Brain on Music" -- we asked Dan: How does a song actually get stuck in your head?


Dan Levitin: From a memory standpoint, summer songs are special in that the way popular radio works is that they'll play, as you know, they'll play songs over and over and over again for a limited amount of time. And then when the song falls off the chart, they go to another one. And that's exactly what the brain needs for a memory cue.

In other words, the way memory works is that almost everything you experience is in there. The hard part is getting it out. And what you need in a memory cue to evoke an old memory is something that is uniquely associated with a particular time and place. So a song that is played all, all over the summer, but only that summer, can remind you of that summer of 1980, and the people you were with and the things that you did. A song like the National Anthem or "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" or "Happy Birthday" -- we sing those or hear those so often that they don't trigger particular memories

Desiree Cooper: But why is it for me that it's the songs when I was a teenager that still evokes something, even though I'm listening to the radio all the time. It's only those high school years that really do something to me.

Levitin: Around the age of 15, there's this biological shift and your brain is no longer primarily concerned with making new connections. Instead, it tries to prune out all the unneeded ones and the architecture of your brain is changing. It certainly doesn't mean you don't learn anything after the age of 15, but learning takes on a fundamentally different quality. Add to that all the hormones that are going through a teenage body for the first time, and those hormones make everything that happens to you seem really important. And then all of that together creates this kind of "preferential memory tracer" of songs.

Cooper: So Dan, what's the formula for a good summer song?

Well you know, I think in general a song that's going to accompany outdoor activities is going to have a faster tempo. You're not going to have a slow lugubrious song in the heat summer, usually. There are exceptions, when I was a teenager Fifth Dimension had this song called "Stone Soul Picnic" -- remember that one?

Absolutely.

That was kind of slow, but it had a groove to it and it sort of felt like a hot day out by the picnic tables.

Right, I think about humidity when I hear this song.

Yeah.

You don't want to move too fast, you just want to lounge around, yeah. And when you where talking about tempo, I'm thinking about Gwen Stefani's "Holla Back Girl" from maybe about three or four years ago -- literally, it's a cheerleading song and they're clapping out the tempo of that whole song.

They tend to have shorter rhythms, even though the tempo's fast the rhythms could be slow. But they tend to be sort of syncopated and more rhythmic.

When I think about some summer songs, they are in my head and I don't want them to be. They are, you know, there're just like this loop that keeps going on and on and on. How long does it take a summer song to really get contagious, like to seep into your cranium even if you don't want it to be there?

Well, it's different for everybody and it's different for every song. Sometimes a song will get stuck there after one listen and sometimes it takes 50 or 100. When a song does get stuck we call that an "ear worm" and scientists don't know that much about them. I mean, we know that it tends to be 15 or 20 seconds of the song that gets stuck, not the whole thing, and they tend to be relatively simple melodically and rhythmic. Most people aren't running around with Stravinsky in there. They are running around with, you know, like "Who Let the Dogs Out" -- rawf, rawf, rawf, rawf, rawf, right? Or YMCA.

Or Rihanna's "Umbrella."

Oh no!

That one is in my head and I wish is wasn't.

Now it's in mine. Thanks a lot.

Well, Dan, thank you. This has been interesting. We will have to see what happens this summer.


Favorite Summer Songs of the Weekend America Crew:
Ben Adair — "Blister in the Sun" by Violent Femmes

David Banks — "Don't Worry Baby" by The Beach Boys

Rob Byers — "My Son Mystic" by Gay Dad

Krissy Clark — "Sister Golden Hair" by America

Desiree Cooper — "Summer Madness" by Kool and the Gang

Jim Gates — "Pleasant Valley Sunday" by The Monkees

Millie Jefferson — "Summertime" by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince

Angela Kim — "Hey Ya!" by Outkast

Suzie Lechtenberg — "Rocky Mountain High" by John Denver

Dalasie Michaelis — "What's up Fatlip" by Fatlip

John Moe — "Magic" by The Cars

Brendan Newnam — "Range Life" by Pavement

Ekene Okobi — "Golden Boys" by Res

Phyllis Owens — "Hot Fun in the Summertime" by Sly and the Family Stone

Bill Radke — "It Feels Like Rain" by John Hiatt

Marc Sanchez — "I Am a Scientist" by Guided by Voices

More stories from our Change of Seasons series

Comments

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  • By Leah Smith

    From Green Bay, WI, 07/02/2008

    Summer to me is sitting in the back of my aunt's station wagon, sitting next to my cousins, on the way to swimming lessons and singing "Afternoon Delight" at the top of our lungs. We had no idea what the song was about, and I am sure my aunt liked it that way!

    By Dawn Smith

    From Charlotte, NC, 06/18/2008

    This is just ONE song...

    "Rio" by Duran Duran. It was the song (not "Hungry Like the Wolf"), that cemented them as my favorite artist for most of my life.

    By Sheri Kennedy

    From Omaha, NE, 06/14/2008

    One of favorites, mostly for the memories it brings to mind, is "Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty. I didn't know it then, but it was my last summer of childhood - I turned 16 that fall, got a job, took on all the responsibilities that come with being an adult. So, for me, this song is about the end of innocence.

    By GLORIA EREN

    From Durham, NC, 06/14/2008

    My absolute favorite Don Henley
    "Boys of Summer"
    The singer, the song, my age at the time (26), living in Ft Lauderdale.
    It was the best at least until reality forced its way in, or tried.

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