In Alfred Bester’s award-winning science-fiction novel, The Demolished Man, the protagonist, Ben Reich, is trying to figure how to get away with murder in a society where the police can read minds. His solution is to be “accidentally” exposed to an “earworm,” a portion of a song that repeats compulsively within the mind. Thus, when a telepathic detective looks into Ben’s mind, all the detective hears is the endlessly repeating song. Colloquially, we would that the song is “stuck in his head.”
There are many different “hooks” that can turn songs into earworms. In The Demolished Man, it’s a repetitive, tongue-twisting lyric:
Eight sir, seven sir, six sir, five sir, four sir, three sir, two sir, one.
Tenser, said the Tensor, Tenser said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun.
In many songs, it’s the music itself. An ostinato, known as a vamp in popular music, is a phrase or motif that’s repeated in the same rhythm and tonality. (A favorite example is the vamp at the start of “All That Jazz” in the musical Chicago.) Regardless of the actual repetition, if the motif is memorable, the mind latches onto it and extends it indefinitely.
Anime series and OVAs seem to be a particularly prolific source of earworms, and it’s an occupational hazard of fansubbing to be exposed, and over-exposed, to songs that get stuck in one’s head. A viewer can fast-forward past the OP or ED; the fansub team has to listen to the songs week-in and week-out, and quite possibly multiple times during the timing, editing, and QC phases. The results can be truly mind-wrecking.
A couple of my favorite (or perhaps, least favorite) examples of anime earworms:
- Love Getchu OP: “Nanairo Nadeshiko.” This incredibly bouncy example of bubblegum J-rock is a prime offender. It has repetitive lyrics (“Chu chu chu chu, chu chu churu ru ru…"), an extended vamp outro, and a catchy melody. Because of multiple abortive attempts to finish this series, this song is now irretrievably etched into my frontal lobes.
- Happiness OP: “Happiness.” Another irrepressibly cheery bubblegum song that I hope never to hear again, because I’ll never be rid of it if I do.
- Chi’s Sweet Home OP: “Ouchi ga Ichiban.” It’s only 30 seconds long in the anime, but it’s simple, bouncy structure, repeated 104 times, turns it into an earworm.
- Kekkaishi OP: “Sha la la -Ayakashi Night.” I heard this song at least 51 times, because Kekkaishi only had one OP, and I had to retime it every week to fit the hardsubbed kanji. I actually like the song, but it too has repetitive lyrics and a recurring vamp and is very difficult to eradicate.
- Nodame Cantabile OP: “Allegro Cantabile.” Another good song turned insidious earworm, because of the structural similarity of all the musical lines in the verses. Koda’s terrific karaoke for C1’s version helps make it even more memorable.
- Durarara!! OP1: “Uragiri no Yuuyake.” This hard-driving J-rocker uses a simple, repeated two-note motif to hammer itself home in the mind.
- Elfen Lied OP: “Lilium.” This one is rather different. It’s haunting, rather than repetitive. The contrast between the serene beauty of the song, and the horrific subject matter of the anime, made the song particularly memorable. Monster’s ED2, “Make It Home,” posed a similar threat.
Over the years, what anime earworms have bitten you?