People of the Books

Brian Zimmerman

Examining the world through the microscope and Midrash. By Spertus Institute's Brian Zimmerman.

People of the Books

Fiddler in my head

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, and to celebrate, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, where I work, is hosting a free screening of the 1971 film adaptation on their Feinberg Theatre big screen.

In preparation for the April 6 event, I've been listening non-stop to the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack. As a result, I often catch myself humming "If I Were a Rich Man," or "Tradition!" in the most inconvenient situations, like during a meeting, or when I'm trying to fall asleep (not in a meeting). As I learned the hard way, these Fiddler songs sure are sticky.  

Looking to clear my brain of Tevye's baritone voice, I turned to psychologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose book Musicophilia provided a handy explanation for why some songs are catchier than others.

Normally, writes Dr. Sacks, our brains perceive music in a passive state. They hear it, absorb it, then let it go. But for some music, that's not the case: "Sometimes normal musical imagery crosses a line and becomes, so to speak, pathological, as when a certain fragment of music repeats itself incessantly, sometimes maddeningly, for days on end," he says.

He calls these fragments "earworms," for the way they seem to bury themselves in our ears, and his book provides three theories on what makes them stick. The first is repetition.

Recalling the days of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing in England, Dr. Sacks describes a scene around his Seder table after the Passover meal when his family would sing "Chad Gadya," a traditional Passover song. As many of us know, "Chad Gadya" is a laboriously repetitive tune, with the chorus chanted up to 46 times.  After so many repetitions, Sacks said the tune "would haunt [him] and pop into [his] mind dozens of times a day throughout the eight days of Passover, then slowly diminish throughout the next year."

I admit, in gearing up for our Fiddler event I've probably listened to "Sunrise, Sunset" more times than is healthy your average human being. But as Dr. Sacks notes, repetition isn't the only reason a song gets stuck in a person's head. The second is cultural association.

In his book, Sacks theorizes that the stickiness of "Chad Gadya" had something to do with the context in which the tune was sung. For him, the song represented his own Jewish heritage, as well as the feeling of warmth and togetherness of being with his family. Because his brain craved those warm feelings, it would play the song again and again in his head, much to the annoyance of his eardrums.

Which brings us to the last ingredient in the making of a good earworm: overstimulation.

In the pre-industrial age, if people wanted to hear music, they had to go to a house of worship, concert, or party to get their fix. But with the advent of broadcasting, the way society consumed music changed overnight. Music became available everywhere - in our homes, our cars, our workplaces, even our showers. As Sacks writes, we now live in an era when "half of us are plugged into iPods, immersed in daylong concerts of our own choosing, virtually oblivious to the environment." There's hardly a public place we can go to today in which we're not totally bombarded by music.

Sacks thinks this musical omnipresence is responsible for the mass outbreak of earworms. "This barrage of music puts a certain strain on our exquisitely sensitive auditory systems, which cannot be overloaded without dire consequences," he says. He has a point. Overstimulation adds stress to our mental faculties, causing them to react in all kinds of unexpected ways. That's part of the reason why we experience anxiety when faced with mounting deadlines at work, or panic when we're lost in an unfamiliar place. When our brains are stressed, our mental faculties become confused, and that's when earworms are most likely to strike.

So is there anything we can learn from earworms, knowing that they arise from overstimulation?

Absolutely. And lucky for us, some of the wisest words ever spoken about musical overstimulation came from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, an 18th-century Jewish sage and founder of the Breslover Hasidic Dynasty.

A music lover, he often explained the world in terms of song. Take this psalm for example:

Know that each and every shepherd has his own tune.

Know that each and every grass has its own song.

And from the song of the grasses the tune of the shepherd is made.

How beautiful, how beautiful and pleasant to hear their song.

According to Rebbe Nachman, we live in a world in which every living thing has its own melody. We might assume that all these sounds blaring at our eardrums would make for a miserable existence, stressing our nervous systems the way Dr. Sacks describes. But Rebbe Nachman says the opposite, suggesting that a life filled with music is "beautiful" and "pleasant." He goes on to say that it's this accumulation of songs that defines our identities. In other words, we are the songs we choose to hear.

This got me thinking about my Fiddler on the Roof earworm, and it led me to a change in perspective.

I love Fiddler on the Roof. It's one of my favorite musicals, and I have fond memories of watching it on my living room couch with my family. It also brings to mind the long and captivating history of the Jews, a history to which I am proudly tied. So the next time "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" and "Wonder of Wonders" pop into my consciousness, I shouldn't get annoyed. I should think about how the songs remind me of my family and the Jewish traditions I hold near to my heart. After all, these are the "songs of the grasses" from which I am made. To that I can only say, "L'Chaim!" (Uh-oh, I think I feel another song coming on.)

If you want to join me at Spertus Institute on April 6 to see Fiddler on the big screen, reserve your seat at spertus.edu/fiddler or call 312.322.1773.Get ready to sing!


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