Plato, I learned in graduate school, was nervous about music. He would have excluded the flute from the Republic. His vision of an ideal world was men standing around talking (yes, of course, men), engaged in dialectic, trying to get to the truth, trying to make some wisdom.Music, and the flute in particular, would be distracting. He writes in the Republic: “When someone gives music an opportunity to charm his soul with the flute and pour those sweet, soft, and plaintive tunes we mentioned through his ear…if he keeps at it unrelentingly and is beguiled by the music, after a time his spirit is melted and dissolved until it vanishes, and the very sinews of his soul are cut out”
That sounds bad. Sometime, somewhere, you’re going to need those soul sinews.
The term probably didn’t exist in Greek, but I think Plato also must have been nervous about earworm. Music, he probably said somewhere, gets inside your head.
I’ve had a bad case of earworm for about a week. Without meaning to, totally against my will, I find myself humming Andrea Bocelli’s “Con te partiro’.” Not humming it. What’s going on is more like think-hum. Earworm. It’s vivid, it’s involuntary, it’s silent and persistent.
I’ve got nothing against Andrea Bocelli. I’m sure he’s a very nice guy. But I’ve heard this song far too many times, in all kinds of circumstances, mostly weddings, but also in a lot of restaurants. If there’s a place where love is in the air, or that makes use of or projects Italian culture, “Con te partiro’” will be there.
I mentioned it to my wife a couple days ago, humming that distinctive line in the song, na-na-na na-na-na na-na-nahhhhhh.
“Don’t do that,” she says.
“He only has that one song.”
She says there are lots of songs.
“Whole albums full of songs.”
“Yes, but that’s the one that gets you,” I say. “It’s like Elvis Presley. ‘You ain’ nothin’ but a hound dog.’”
“Just don’t hum it.”
“Or Tiny Tim, ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips.’”
She shakes her head.
“Con te partiro’,” I say, “is Andrea Bocelli’s ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.”
The other senses aren’t wormy the way the ear is. Take smell, for instance. There’s baked bread and lilac and gasoline, powerful smells that set your olfactory receptors atingle, but those scents and fragrances and stinks don’t visit you, unbidden, when you’re taking a shower or walking down the street.
Or consider the tactile sense. The last couple mornings, to keep from waking my wife, I’ve gone for coffee at a place called Happy Donuts in San Francisco, just down the street from our hotel, ear-worming Bocelli as I go. At 5:00 a.m. in Happy Donuts it’s just me and a couple homeless people and a thin, stoic Chinese guy. Everyone asleep sitting up. I lean against a table the first morning, with bare arms, and feel the unmistakable cling of a sticky surface: spilled soft drink, a smear of donut icing, or maybe something much worse. That surface is a sensory impression that makes an impression. But unlike earworm, at least it has the decency to not come back and stay awhile, revisiting you when you least want it or expect it.
We’re finishing a long stint of sight-seeing. These weeks I’ve seen buttes and mesas, cliff faces and canyons, rushing streams and waterfalls. Yesterday we stood in front of the amazing murals in Coit Tower. Today I can conjure faces of cliffs or the faces we saw at Coit Tower if I want to. I can pick up a piece of pizza, fold it in half, raise it to my mouth—and sort of see images, while in the background of my mind I hear Bocelli singing na-na-na na-na-na na-na-nahhhhhh. Unlike earworm, images don’t come at me out of nowhere and hang around. There’s no such thing as eye worm. And palate worm, inviting me to re-relish that delectable prosciutto pizza? Not really. Nothing as present and persistent as earworm.
According to Psychology Today: “Well over 90 percent of people report having an earworm at least once a week.” In psychological literature there is reference to involuntary musical imagery (INMI) and “spontaneous cognition.”
Help, if you want to call it that, exists.
There’s an app for that, called Unhearit. It is new website that uses the “latest in reverse-auditory-melodic-unstickification technology.” Upon further investigation, however, it sounds like you just swap a new earworm for an old one. Out goes “Con te partiro’. In comes “The Chicken Dance.”
It occurs to me that I have no idea what exactly Bocelli is singing about (and maybe that’s what makes the song so sticky). If it’s going to be lodged in my head, I think I ought to find out.
One of my first hits on a Google search takes me to Tranquility Burial and Cremation Services. Okay, now I’m plundering my memory. Have I heard Con te partiro’ at a funeral? Ever?
But the lyrics, which are pretty vague, seem to swing both ways, beginning of life, end of life. You’re giving away your daughter at her wedding. It’s the end of her life with you, the beginning of her life with him (or her). Or, hey, we may be breaking up, but we’ll always have the great time together in Cleveland. Or, one of us really is, like, dead (and it’s not the one singing the song).
I just might pay Unhearit a visit. I’ve spent way too much time with “Con te partiro’.” My soul sinews are stretched to the breaking point.