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THE HUMAN CONDITION / WHY WE HUM : Head Trip With Music

April 17, 1991|MARY ANN HOGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Ann Hogan is a San Francisco free-lance writer

There you are, minding your business, drinking your morning coffee, reading the funnies. Then-- click --it happens.

I'm gon-na sit right down and write my-self a let-terrrrr . . . .

There it is. That song again. Oozing from your subconscious into your breakfast tranquillity.

. . . and ma-a-ke be-lieve it ca-a-a-ame from yoooou . . . .

How long has it been in your head? Since last night? Two days ago? Three?

Your first conscious bow to it was a night or two ago over the dinner dishes, when the counterpoint between your breathing and the lapping dishwater sounded like the refrain from that very song. Next thing you knew, you were hearing it over and over in your mind--sometimes breathing it, sometimes thinking it--as if the turntable of your gray matter was on automatic replay. Where does it come from, this Muzak of the Mind? How does it trip the repeat mechanism, staying with you, staying with you, staying with you. . . ? Why do you not even notice it sometimes until the breath or the rhythm of your feet falls in sync to remind you, I CAN'T GET THAT SONG OUT OF MY HEAD!

It's as old as the first tribal rain songs and common as the common cold. Science has a name for it: "obsessive musical thought," but science doesn't know exactly what causes it or what to do about it.

People who do think about such things, from hypnotists to otological neurophysiologists, offer a number of explanations: You may be an obsessive type. Or something may be bothering you. Or--the obvious--you could have heard the same TV jingle one too many times.

But the experts agree on one count: The brain is organized to repeat itself, and often does, independently, relentlessly, outside the realm of conscious control.

"Just because we have minds doesn't mean we know how to operate them," says Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who has written books on how people get rid of unwanted thoughts.

Think of it: at any given noontime at any downtown intersection, 100 furious cross-walkers could be hearing 100 different internal melodies, snatches of TV jingles, traces of "Happy Birthday," strains of the gnawing mantra, PLAY-that-FUNK-ky-MU-sic . . . .

But getting rid of it, mind experts say, is easier said than done, since the reason you have it in the first place might well have something to do with your personality. One theory suggests that obsessively bent people are more susceptible.

"I'd call it a 'normal obsession,' " says Dr. Dennis Munjack, a professor of psychiatry at USC and specialist in obsessive-compulsive behavior. "It tends to be a cognitive style. Some people just tend to ruminate on things."

Experts who study the hearing nervous system say it begins with a sound or string of sounds. It may be something on the radio. Maybe something back as far as early childhood--the loping rhythm of the Roy Rogers anthem "Happy Trails to You," a lullaby, the whir of a fussy vacuum cleaner.

Those sounds, like all experiences, are coded in memory in vast data banks in various parts of the brain. If we hear or do something again and again, neurophysiology explains-- Hap-py TRA-A-A-A-ails to yoooou. . .-- certain sectors in the nervous system become deeper, like paths in a riverbed deepening under recurrent eddies of water. Those deepened paths then act like magnets to the sounds that made the paths deeper in the first place.

"The fact is, some people have a facile ability for tonal sequence which is not necessarily music-related. It's more fundamental than music," says Michael Merzenich, professor of otological neurophysiology at the UC San Francisco Medical Center.

Which explains why some self-described tone-deaf people have as many musical thoughts as the church choir director and why some professional musicians hear no head music at all.

A tone-sensitive brain that's idle and dying for something creative to do could turn the down-up-down-up da-DA-da-DA whine of a police siren into the comfortable path carved out by the tonally similar theme from "Lawrence of Arabia" or the theme song from that dreaded "Jeopardy!" All it really takes to hook into a musical thought is a bored unconscious mind and some external trigger. Any trigger.

Click.

"I called a friend of mine," says David Gere, 29, a San Francisco music critic, "and her answering machine said, 'Hi. This is Rachel. Tell me a story.' I immediately clicked into an old Sunday School song, Tell Me the Sto-ry of Je-sus. . . . In fact, I sang it into her machine. And she's Jewish."

Click.

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