Edward Allen is a Lecturer in the Faculty of English, and a Fellow of Christ’s College. He is an Early Career Fellow with CRASSH in Lent Term 2022.
Q: Ned, you recently joined CRASSH as an Early Career Fellow. Could you tell us a little bit about what you are working on during your fellowship?
I’m working on earworms! Very occasionally, when earworms pop up in conversation, people imagine that I’m interested in a particular kind of moth larva – the ‘corn earworm’, an agricultural pest known for attacking ears of corn – but most assume (correctly) that I’m bugged instead by the sort of tune that gets stuck in your head. One of my interests in the phenomenon has to do with our means of describing it: ‘earworm’ hails from the German (Ohrwurm), but lots of other names have sprung up over the years – earwig, jingle, maggot, imp, crotchet, cognitive itch, sticky music, Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) – which tells us something significant about the pain and pleasure people have experienced in trying to tame or contain the thing. What I’m trying to do is write a cultural history of the earworm – it might be closer to a literary history, I admit – on the basis that writers as different as Poe and Proust, Fowles and Sayers, have left us a whole host of stories and poems on the subject. In fact, it was a poet – Marianne Moore – who proposed long ago a ‘cure’ for earworms that people are still inclined to entertain today: ‘When a tune plagues the ear, the best way to be rid of it is to let it forth unhindered’. In other words, don’t just keep playing over that musical fragment; listen to the whole tune – re-embed the fragment – and hey presto – goodbye, earworm!
Q: What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?
There is a poem by one of Moore’s contemporaries, Wallace Stevens, called ‘The Mechanical Optimist’; it’s about a lady listening to the radio. I was writing about the poem in a book called Modernist Invention, and I found myself getting stuck on the word ‘catching’, which appears in the poem’s first stanza. That word prompted a footnote about Oliver Sacks’s brilliant book Musicophilia (2007), and that footnote in turn prompted the thought that there’s a lot more to say about catchiness, as a symptom of poetic rhyme, as a pathology, as a fact of life, really (psychologists hazard that 92% of people experience earworms on a regular basis). So, that’s where this research started. As for what I find interesting about it, I am intrigued by the prevalence of earworms, coupled with the fact that we still don’t really know why they’re so prevalent. What makes one tune or jingle or poem qualitatively stickier than another? Psychologists are getting closer to answering that question, but my instinct is that we’re likely to arrive at a thicker description of the phenomenon if we combine the data gleaned in labs with information from other fields, such as memory studies, musicology (obviously), literary studies, history of science, and so on.
Q: Are there things that have impacted your research in particular?
It is the kind of research project that you feel evolving everyday. I wake up to the radio and hear something new and jingly; I read the news and see someone trying to make sense of their being haunted by something. I haven’t read Rita Felski’s new book yet – Hooked: Art and Attachment (2020) – but I was gratified to read my colleague Helen’s review of it, which spotlights an instance of Zadie Smith buzzing with a song by Joni Mitchell. Most people, I’m coming to realise, have an anecdote about getting caught on something. I remember vividly the experience of having the chorus of a song stuck in my head, and this was in the days before Shazam had taken off, the app that helps people to identify particular pieces of music. I’d only heard the song once, at a party, and I couldn’t remember the lyrics. So there the song remained for ages, stuck in my teenage head, until one day I heard it in a shop: ‘Dosed’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Talk about angsty! But that does make sense: the scientific literature reveals that our affective states – combinations of mood, emotion, stress, timing, and so on – play an important part in an earworm’s taking root.
Q: What sort of publication are you working on?
I think there is a whole book to be written about earworms. For the moment, the article I’m writing starts with Tarantino and Scott’s True Romance – a film that concludes with someone feeling like a broken record – and ends with Eliot’s Four Quartets, which also began life in the groove of a vinyl LP. That’s what I’m trying to argue, anyway, with the help of some letters, a draft of the poem, and an American show-tune.
Q: Could you tell us about your most recent book?
I’ve just finished editing a collection of essays for Routledge about prose fiction and the hearing sciences. Most of the chapters have been written by people working at the intersection of literary, sound and disability studies – it has chapters in it about Martin Amis and tinnitus, Virginia Woolf and noise pollution, Teju Cole and synaesthesia – but those chapters are interpolated with short think-pieces by people working more squarely in the clinical sciences. One of the talking-points to which many of the contributors return – and which I’ve been circling around in my earworms work – has to do with the fuzzy interface between otology and psychology, between things that we like to think pertain to our ears and things that belong more properly to the mind. Which is not to trivialise things that might appear to be ‘in our heads’; those things can be very real, even more than real. And that might be where fiction comes in, in the sense that fiction has always been in the business of negotiating – and of blurring – what’s real and what’s not.
• Edward Allen will give his work-in-progress seminar ‘Sticky listening: the cultural lives of earworms‘ on Wednesday 9 March 2022 at 12:30.