Song of the Mock Turtles

From September 1st to December 31st of last year I kept a stuck tune diary, a journal of all of the sticky tunes that visited me, particularly tunes that I awoke with already playing in my head. Of the 122 days there were 32 days when I awoke without a song playing in my head. You heard it right—without a song. Suspecting that I would not learn anything new, but the same two or three lessons would repeat endlessly like a school bell in a dream about a class that neither ends nor begins, by early November I decided to conclude the journal at the end of the year. Mostly I feared a bad case of the sickness since the journal itself was causing two or three songs to recur. After a while the diary had become a catalogue of songs, a veritable jukebox of sticky tunes, the mere thought of which could bring one of them up in an instant. Because of the way the syndrome works (for me, anyway), my brain came to identify thought of the journal with two songs in particular. In other words every time the thought of the journal crossed my mind one of those songs threatened to take hold. It’s all automatic, like an involuntary muscle, something the brain does apart from conscious will. I had created the journal in hopes of learning something about myself. What I learned, above all, was helplessness.

The phenomenon does not seem to have been studied deeply. One or two studies available online suggest that it is more common among musicians or people who claim that music is very important to them than those who are not as sensitive to music. In most cases the subjects reported that the incidents were either painless or even pleasant. The term “cognitive itch” is used because when consciousness tries to silence a stuck tune the song’s impetus increases in a process designated as “ironic process theory”. Therefore, according to one study, trying to suppress the tune is not as effective as passive acceptance.

For me the condition is tolerable, but when it veers out of the tolerable zone it more often goes into unpleasant territory than the pleasurable. Times when the experience is pleasant are rare. During the four month period there were two instances when my brain handed me a musical joke that I found amusing, and a fair amount of times when I did not mind the experience, but only one instance of genuine pleasure. That was when I awoke with Ennio Morricone’s Mi Vedrai Tornare in my head, a song I had not listened to, although I had recently enjoyed a playlist with other Morricone tunes on it.

There is something peculiar about the way I perceive myself. Awaking with a beautiful Morricone tune I had not listened to recently, although I had listened to a whole list of others, made me feel proud of my musical intelligence. And yet so many other mornings when my involuntary musical brain made me feel like a dog barking at the mailman do not justify such pride. I’ll grasp at anything to save myself from the awful feeling of helplessness in the face of involuntary musical memory.

Passive acceptance is often the best that one can do. But for me it is sometimes not enough. Active engagement is sometimes necessary. Sometimes the tune is so unwelcome, persistent or recurring over a period of days that I have to take it, sing it hum it or whistle it and most importantly aggressively improvise on it. It does not always work, but often it does. Changing the lyrics if it is a pop tune also helps. Intentionally listening to certain types of music provides more of a guarantee for me that I will not wake up the next day with a tune in my head. Not surprisingly the music must be subtle and/or complex, often improvisational and preferably instrumental. There’s a reason non-idiomatic improvisation or “free music” is my favorite genre of music. Is it a paradox that I can’t listen to it all the time? It is my favorite genre precisely because I require variety in my musical diet.*

Albert Ayler has come to typify for me the supreme example of how to actively engage a tune to prevent its sticking. One would think that his stripped down, one might even say crude tunes would stick in my brain, yet they never have because his improvisations are so vigorous.

A social media meme asks for the names of three musicians who describe you as a person. I thought about it and the first three who came to mind that describe me as a person as well as a poet were Ayler, Thelonious Monk and Captain Beefheart. They have in common their combining of very simple, almost childish motifs with vigorous improvisation. True, this features to a much greater extent in the music of the first two, but Beefheart combines unusual musical elements in such novel ways that the aural effect is similar.

And yet who can explain the mystery that I have never awoken with a Replacements or a Faith No More tune in my head? True, each band in their own way is a musical mockingbird, but that is far truer of their live performances than their studio albums which I have listened to countless times. I don’t know my brain. Helpless.

If I couldn’t use the stuck tune diary as a learning tool I decided to use it instead as data for a poem or poems. A harmless but off-putting poem. Possibly a cento, certainly a poem with repeating lines. I spent a couple of hours googling lyrics of the songs that recurred two or more times. But when I began a poem I thought of a dream I had on December 31st and used a line from a song (The Carpet Crawlers) that had not visited me, a song I had not heard or thought about in many years. That line and the segment from the Mock Turtle’s recitation in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were the only collage elements I used (the poem, such as it is, appears below). I had not used a single line from a stuck song. The morning after writing the poem I awoke with The Carpet Crawlers in my head. The lyrics, by the way, appear to be completely meaningless.

While writing this today I listened to the music of Salvatore Sciarrino. I love his music for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. One can let it play while concentrating on a mental task, such as writing, letting the mind go from the task to the music at will. It plays seriously with sound textures (and as such plays well with whatever is going on aurally in the environment). And there’s a very, very good chance I won’t wake up with it glued to my brain. For me waking up with silence is as refreshing as the gentle sound of a cool breeze over a field of grass. Let me people it with sounds of my own making or choosing. On 75% of the days of the year I am thwarted from doing this. That is why the mockingbird sings.

Song of the Mock Turtles

The crawlers cover the floor
They carpet the roads
And before you know it
They’re at your door

Keep your peace
Keep your peace
It’s not a sin to stay shut in
They will always fly in
Don’t you know they will always fly in

Will you, won’t you
Will you, won’t you
Will you join the dance?

O yes I am, O no I can’t
O yes I am, O no I can’t

I never started the nonstop dance

They come out of the dark
With their eyes aglow
And from that flame
You’ll have your spark

Don’t lift a hand
This is not a fight
It’s life on a cloud
It’s life on a cloud
First to yourself and then aloud

Will you, won’t you
Will you, won’t you
Will you join the dance?
O yes I am, O no I can’t
O yes I am, O no I can’t
I never started the nonstop dance

In the black of night
An Ayler march
Sets an army of notes
Into stellar flight

It’s yours to own
It’s yours to own
The only way through
Is to hold yourself true
And take the whole parade home

Will you, won’t you
Will you, won’t you
Will you join the dance?
O yes I am, O no I can’t
O yes I am, O no I can’t
I never started the nonstop dance

And with each dawn a reset
They’re coming back
You know it’s true
With their tunes your mind beset

Wait for a sign
To fight back or recline
You will always get it
You will always get it
You will always get a chance in time

Will you, won’t you
Will you, won’t you
Will you join the dance?
O yes I am, O no I can’t
O yes I am, O no I can’t
I never started the nonstop dance

The crawlers cover the floor
They carpet the roads
And before you know it
They’re at your door

Keep your peace
Keep your peace
It’s not a sin to stay shut in
They will always fly in
Don’t you know they will always fly in

Will you, won’t you
Will you, won’t you
Will you join the dance?
O yes I am, O no I can’t
O yes I am, O no I can’t
I never started the nonstop dance



*Here is a partial list of composer/musicians that I listened to over the four month period of my journal that helped repel, for at least one day, the memory of sticky tunes:
Albert Ayler
Cecil Taylor
Thelonious Monk
Captain Beefheart
Anthony Braxton
Ennio Morricone
Arvo Pärt
Judd Greenstein’s Acadia
Hildegard von Bingen sung by Anonymous 4
Beethoven piano sonatas

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4 Responses to Song of the Mock Turtles

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    What an ingenious exercise, or perhaps most ingenious is the uses and analysis it engendered. I love, BTW, that Judd Greenstein’s Acadia makes your list of curative music. Happy unstuck listening in the year ahead!

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