Music To My Ears


When my father was about the age I am now, he told me that he had begun to hear music in his head. I’m not sure whether he was troubled by this intrusion or bemused by it. My father was not musical in any way beyond the music of the synagogue. The fact that he was not exposed to music in his hard scrabble family shaped the atmosphere in which I was raised. We did not own a phonograph and when the radio was on it was seldom tuned to music, except when my sister captured control of it and introduced me to standard musical offerings of the time like Your Hit Parade or the suave disc jockey William B. Williams, the ultimate Frank Sinatra fan. Lorraine was not too far behind him.  When he was appearing live at the Paramount or the Roxy, she was there with her girlfriends shrieking like Banshees. Needless to say, this is not the music my father would have been listening to so I’ll never know what was tickling his ears.

Now, something similar is happening to me. I’ve become aware of a kind of mixtape that is constantly running in the background. Sometimes they’re ear worms that have implanted themselves after a recent hearing, but more often they’re ghosts of songs I may have heard 70 or 75 years ago.  Although I could probably sing them, they tend to come as scrolls of lyrics perfectly recalled, despite an occasional dropped word. Songs on the radio tended to be repeated frequently, so there was probably ample opportunity for them to lodge in my brain, but my sense is that there was a time when the memory portions of my brain were so fertile that it could take just a single hearing for them to become fixtures in my catalog.

I had intended to present some examples to you, but like dreams these vagrant songs are ephemeral and frail. They retreat back into the recesses of memory when approached aggressively. I need to start carrying pen and paper with me to track them more systematically.

We all know stories about older people who have experienced serious cognitive loss, but their musical memories remain intact, especially with instruments they can continue to play at a high level of competence. I’m sure that MRIs would indicate that the preservation involves similar brain space. I’m fascinated by the question of what evolutionary purpose this power of musical memory serves.

There’s a related phenomenon that many of you are likely to recognize. It’s the persistence of advertising jingles heard in childhood. Some of them depend on the music that accompanies them, but even in the absence of music, advertisers have always relied on the power of repetition. During my psychology training I observed on the inpatient word of a large mental hospital.  One of the patients was a boy of 8 or 9 who was non-verbal, with the exception of a single phrase that he repeated endlessly in a rapid-fire way that slurred the words, but I could identify it immediately and supply the missing sections. I heard “floats the dirt right down the drain” which I could complete with the introductory phrase “Use Ajax, the foaming cleanser…” because I, like this troubled schizophrenic boy, had this ad imprinted by the cunning purveyors of their product who knew the power of the repetition of this combination of music and lyrics. If you twist my arm, I can sing the Ajax ad for you with accompanying sound effects.

I have no doubt that every reader of this piece can roll out a whole medley of implanted ads, regardless of your age. Don’t you wonder at the amazing clutter that occupies significant brain space that could better be occupied by great poetry or mathematical equations?  But the designers of our complex conglomeration of brain cells had other plans for us. Why?

PS. After completing this piece, I actually caught the mixtape in action! It took me a while to identify it and to fill in some of the missing words. With the help of the internet, I found it – Mule Train by Frankie Lane, wildly popular in the Fifties, but a total embarrassment today. “Mule train, clippity clop, clippity clop, ridin’ along over hill and plain. I guess she’ll never stop, clippity clopping along.” Again, why has it been hiding in the folds of my brain and why has it chosen this time to emerge?

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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