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1 Jan  

I am writing a piece at the moment, a singspiel, which is taken from a satirical story by Hoffman. Hoffman was satirising Napoleonic times with its delusions of grandeur and attendant subservient flunkeys – a universal theme if ever there was one! Although I have moved the story away from Napoleon, I feel that I want to keep one foot in the early 19th century, and so I am referencing Rossini a bit, and using one particular melody ‘Di tanti palpiti’ from Tancredi (for all you Rossini fans!) as a basic source material for the music.

This tune is a real ohrwurm. I do recommend that you look at the Wikipedia entry for earworm ( – it is amazing how much people have thought about tunes that get stuck in your head. And did you know that earworms should not be confused with ‘endomusia, a serious affliction, through which a sufferer actually hears music that is not playing externally.’ Hmm.

The brief for my singspiel was that the theme of the festival it’s in is Robert Schumann and mental health, and you may know that Robert Schumann had endomusia, and sometimes believed that angels were dictating pieces to him. But I wonder just where the dividing line is between hearing music in your head when you are composing and the serious affliction known as endomusia? I often wake up in the night and the piece I am writing is playing in my head, and I maybe even find it is solving a problem. (Sometimes I find it thinks it is solving a problem but it is not.) But whatever, I am always reassured that in the attic room that is my subconscious, work is being done while I (the drone) get to sleep.

Boulez - hard to remember?History demonstrates that it seems to be important for a piece of music to be memorable in order for it to survive. But it is hard to define what memorability means. It doesn’t mean easy or hard, for something like the Rite of Spring is extremely memorable, both melodically and harmonically. When I was in the BBC Singers it was always interesting what stayed in your mind and what didn’t. We recorded all of Boulez’ choral works, and performed them many times and yet personally I could not sing you anything from any of them, or even properly recall them in the way that I can recall The Rite. Sometimes as soon as the rehearsal had finished, the music was gone and the reigning earworm whether it was by Reich, Radiohead or even me, would return as if it had simply been put on hold.

Pieces which have been heard only once but have impressed can be recalled months or years later in a sort of compressed memory chip, some aural image of them which has been retained. What it is that makes them memorable is not necessarily that they can be whistled, like Rossini, but that something about them is so important to us personally that we need to repeat the memory of them. Maybe our subconscious minds are sending us some sort of psychological message in the same way that I believe illness is a physical message. I realise that this is an unsatisfactory explanation! and would welcome everyone’s input. Meanwhile, I must get back to the serious affliction that is composing.

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 Jim Aitchison commenting on Earworms:
09 January 2010 at 00:16

This sounds a fascinating piece in the making Judith. touch on a knotty mid-late C20th (and current) problem: it’s a source of some discomfort to me that so much music of the Avant-Garde (though this isn’t confined to the Avant-Garde) though saturated with so much theoretical apparatus cannot, in even the smallest part, be recalled in the memory and I guess we can all cite so many examples of this. And yet, on the one hand perhaps some of those composers would be horrified if their music was ‘memorable’ (Babitt: “who cares if you listen”) but on the other some earlier figures perhaps did work in the crushingly naive hope of being ‘whistled’ (Schoenberg). I think it also depends on the listener and the individual pieces: Boulez Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna I find memorable and moving, but most else, apart from bits of Le Marteau, not so. Similarly a lot of Birtwistle apart from The Mask of Orpheus. For some reason – probably because I love his music - I do find a lot of Ligeti’s music very memorable, though humming it is another matter…
Whether being memorable is a measure of quality is an interesting question: unfortunately awful things can also be all too memorable! But all in all I completely agree with you that if a piece of music fires nothing in the mind of a listener that will excite a future re-engagement, if there’s no entry achieved into the listener’s short or long term memory, and if there is no impact on the senses, feelings or intellect that can be of sufficient significance to be recalled, then it’s very hard to see what on earth the point of all the work done by the composer was for.

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