iZazen

This is a bit of a riff off one of slacktivist’s regular posts.

I’ve discovered that while practicing zazen, my brain enjoys tuning into one song (usually) for the entirety of my twenty minutes. Now, I’d like to say that there is some great transcendental meaning to the song selections, but I’m afraid that is unlikely to be the case.

This is more mental jukebox (and who, exactly, has the nickels, I’d like to know), or, perhaps, as the title suggests, it’s my “iZazen” on shuffle. This week’s hits:

Sunday: “No More,” Loaded
Monday: “Purple Rain,” Prince
Tuesday: “Laramie,” Amy Ray
Wednesday: “”Hey Castrator,” Amy Ray and “Silent Legacy,” Melissa Etheridge
Thusday: “Lucystoners,” Amy Ray*

Now, the last four made perfect sense, as I had been (and am currently) listening to Stag this week, and I had played Yes I Am recently as well. I can’t account for the Loaded tune, which I’ve heard all of twice–maybe three times–so far (as the EP doesn’t hit here until next week), though I was checking out some fine pics of their show in Glasgow that night. And “Purple Rain” could be jealousy on my part, as Loaded apparently played it live the other night (oh, how I’d love to see that) and G. was talking about his niece’s hatred of Prince that night as well, in response to my babbling about Loaded.

I have resisted giving too much attention to the songs, though they occasionally make me giggle. The mental musical shuffle is an interesting human habit, though. Germans (bless them) call it “Ohrwurm,“*** which translates exactly as you suspect dear readers: Earworm. I have a colleague, Sam, who often wanders into my office to ask if he is the only one with “such and such a song” in his head. Almost invariably, it is some wonderfully obscure and often obscene blues tune that he can then sing for me and anyone else who happens to be around; this is one of the joys of my job. Not a blues example (the names of which I seldom remember for long), but the other day he sauntered in asking if he was the only one with “Chocolate Jesus” playing on the mental jukebox. Safe to say, he was. On one occasion, we happened to have the same song. He didn’t ask again for weeks.

In his fantastic This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel Levitin posits that the Ohrwurm is a result of the “neural circuits that represent a song [getting] stuck in ‘playback mode,’ and the song–or worse, a little fragment of it–[playing] back over and over again” (155). Moreover, he suggests that the song choices seem to be related on some level to the neurological mapping that forms in our teens years that tends to shape our musical tastes. Simple ditties and fragments of songs (often the refrain, I imagine) get stuck because of an apparent “predilection for simplicity”; we are driven crazy by the stuck moments, because, as he later suggests, when a musical piece is “too simple” or “too complex,” we tend not to like it because it is either “trivial” or “too unfamiliar” (155; 235).

Consider the last for a moment (and Yes fans, please sit down. I know. I get it. It’s delightfully complex with a hint of tobacco on the nose. You are the wine aficionados of the musical world. See, I said it. Don’t really buy it, but I did say it, so calm down. That goes for you Rush fans as well). We tend toward the familiar (say, the songs of our teen years) and to the moderately complex (says the girl who got stuck on “Rise Above” last week), and my iZazen seems to be bearing this out. At the moment I sit and become quiet, the music (which is there anyway, I’m just not listening by that time) becomes obvious. Often, the songs are reflective of what I am listening to, but they also tend to emphasize what I am concerned about at a given moment. “Laramie” and “Silent Legacy” tend to pop up when I am concerned about Civil Rights–particularly for my gay brothers and sisters (which, given one of the current VP picks, I am right now); when I am angry or nervous, I often get GNR songs playing up there–in large measure because they are comforting–familiar– to me. Sometimes, the songs are entirely random, but they do occasionally offer a bit of insight into my current state of mind (Note: stay out of my way if I’m singing anything by Godsmack. I had “Whatever” on the brain for almost the entire time I was fighting with my first major professor during my Masters Program).

I wonder if sometimes it would be worth meditating on whatever song came up during zazen practice, using them as an intuitive guide, rather than as random music in my head. That may be giving my brain more credit than is due, as we have often done with iPod shuffle, but it could prove to be an interesting exercise.

So, what are your most common Earworms?


*Best song ever for this practice. Really. And, apparently, I’m going to hear the whole of Stag before the month is out. I expect “Black Heart Today” to appear shortly. And, admit it, you totally expected that to be a list of GNR songs, didn’t you?

**Duff is dressing like Simon LeBon in the early parts of the shows. I’m not sure what to do with that.

***According to Levitin, the folks most likely to be afflicted by what he calls “stuck song syndrome” are musicians (duh) and…wait for it….

Obsessive compulsives.

Really? Imagine that.


Works Cited

Levitin, Daniel. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science
of a Human Obsession
. New York: Penguin, 2006.

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3 responses to “iZazen

  1. My good friend once told me that Rush concerts offer the unusual sight of the most “air-drummers” in one place at one time. I’m just saying.

    Right now in my head: the word “archivist,” probably because I was thinking about “slacktivist” and my poor tired brain was playing with the various possible pronunciations of those phonemes. Wish I had a song, though – repeating the word “archivist” doesn’t offer any real excitement. (Plus I might just go mad.)

  2. I’ve been waking up in the morning with songs in my head. It’s never anything exceptionally good or exciting; this morning it was something by Lifehouse I must have heard on the radio in the car. It was something horrible by Bruce Springsteen earlier this week.

    I only comment because this is new to me; I’ve never (immediately upon rising) heard random–but clear as day–music. And music that I wouldn’t normally listen to.

    I was chalking it up to my recent brain rewire (ie putting on my “faculty” brain)… who knows.

  3. That’s funny mad…I hear complete songs all the time. It must be rather odd for it just to have started up for you; definitely a faculty brain thing.

    K–totally understand the word-tripping. I still get hung up on “weird.” And, my dear, madness is relative.

    Oddly, doing zazen last night–my brain was oddly quite; not a song to be heard.

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