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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Monday, September 18, 2023

I want to talk about earworms. Not because I want to talk about them per se but because it came to mind as I listened to the church bells yet again today. We had two blessedly clang-free weeks for some reason, until the bells found themselves again sometime around last Tuesday afternoon.

I have been trying to pinpoint the precise – or more precise – reason for my loathing because of course it’s not good enough for me to like or dislike something. I need to pick it apart until it makes complete sense, and barring that, I need to invalidate it as being unreasonable.

Doesn’t really change how I feel, but gives me a container to put it in. “That thing you loathe for unreasonable reasons…  be quiet about it already.”

I know it’s me. I know it. But this is why I’m trying to figure it out. If something is universally despised you just say oh, that is a terrible thing, and you move on. But this is me, and I need to figure it out, at a minimum so I can live with it for another 260-odd days.

I guess the bells bug me in particular because they are so persistent. I hear them fourteen times a day, sixteen on Sunday. That alone might be reason enough, but it’s not. I could use the same argument about Survivor. Sometimes I put it on in the background and let it play all day. I can go through an entire season in a day as I write client blogs or fold laundry.

But I’ve never complained about Survivor.

Right there, though, lies reason number 1: I can, when Survivor gets annoying, turn it off. I cannot turn off the church bells. My only recourse is to lock myself in the bedroom closet with the bathroom vent fan on (trust me, this works) or to put on my headphones and play something else loud enough to drown out the bells.

At least if I blast five minutes of Helen Reddy it makes me happy. And it’s under my own agency, not a thing someone has imposed upon me because [insert some reason here about how Jesus would forget to make an appearance at his own second coming if we did not clang out hymns every hour on the hour].

Reason two is the timbre of it. Like the beeping trucks, there is something teeth-grinding about the bells. They bang the funnybone of my brain and it is not funny.

The problem is they are not actual bells, they are electronic tones that barely resemble bells but shriek and pierce.

So we have an unpleasant clanging, imposed on me repeatedly throughout the day.

Still, you’d be forgiven for saying whatever, get over it, just lock yourself in the bathroom for the noon serenade and for the rest of the day you won’t die from the 60 seconds of irritation on the ‘o clocks.

Which by the way is NEVER on the o’clock. I don’t know if they do it on purpose or because they can’t figure out how to set an electronic alarm, but the bells will ring anywhere from o’clock plus one to o’clock plus fifteen.

It’s ridiculous to me that they can’t actually chime the HOUR. If I am literally going to have to count down the hours of my life until the four horsemen ride, the least they could do is keep time properly.

If they were actual bells, like if some guy went up into a tower and pulled on the ropes every hour and the gonging sound of bells rang across the land… that would be marginally less annoying. It would be organic, at least. Electronic chimes are anything but.

Where was I… right, so all of this never satisfied me. If it was as simple as dealing with it and then going about my business for the other 59 minutes each hour, that might be the end of it.

But take that, and add 8am, noon, 6pm, and 8pm into the equation. That’s when the real magic happens. Four times every day (six on Sunday) we get the whole serenade. Not only do they play the bells but they play ten minutes of bell-hymns.

Actually, no. They play nine minutes of bell hymns. I know this because I timed it.

When they first started shredding my nerves, I looked up the township noise ordinance because I couldn’t believe it was possible to make that much noise for that long.

The noise ordinance specifically allows churches to play their bells for up to 9 minutes within any given hour.

I want to put this in perspective. That is FIFTEEN PERCENT of every hour under the oppression of those bells.

And this is Middle Tennessee. There is a church every five feet. In downtown Franklin there are five within a one block perimeter of the town square. I could walk from one to the other and cover the entire area before they ever finished ringing the noon bells. And probably stop to pick up a coffee on the way.

I can point to three from my balcony alone. Fortunately, I can only hear one.

So I looked up the noise ordinance and saw that it was nine minutes and for the next two weeks I sat there with a stopwatch and timed the bells and wrote down how long they rang.

Nine. Minutes.

I mean? Words rarely fail me but.


Anyway. I need to get to the point, which is what I started to write about in the first place. I figured it out. I figured out why it’s not the bells, per se. Or the frequency, per se. Or the volume, per se.

It’s the hymns.

I. Hate. The hymns.

To be clear, I don’t hate hymns. I hate THE hymns.

I hate them because they are earworms. They are repetitive and simplistic and shallow enough in their musical composition as to slither their way into your ear canal and gnaw their way into your skull so that for the next 45 minutes you’re praising God from whom all blessings flow… over….. and over……. and over………

Maybe this is their purpose. One can’t be sure.

But this is their true evil.

An earworm is like an itch that you keep worrying. Like if the tip of your nose itches, you give it a little twitch and another twitch until you look like Peter Rabbit but the itch never goes anywhere. You have to really scratch it.

The way you scratch an earworm is to sing the whole song. Stop whatever else you’re doing, start at the beginning of the song, and sing, or hum if you don’t know the words, until you get to the end.

I have done this with many songs in my life and it works.

The interesting thing about that is WHY it works.

It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect. It has to do with the fact that we remember interrupted tasks better than completed ones. Basically, it’s your brain saying oh, wait, there is something I have not finished yet so let me keep running it over and over in there so it doesn’t fall out before I get to do it.

Once you do it, your brain is like PHEW! And it takes a break from obsessing you for a minute.

It just doesn’t work for hymns.

It turns out that the thing that makes them hymns is the exact thing that makes them so sticky. By the way, having a repeating tune in your head is also called “stuck song syndrome.” Appropriate.

Hymns are repetitive by nature. Just because you only ever sing one verse in church doesn’t mean there aren’t ten more out there with the exact same tune. And the bells play every one.

Repetitive = stuck.

Hymns are simple. They’re basically made so a five year old can sing them, the bubblegum band of the church. “Brief and trivial” melodies, is how someone described it. Unvarying harmony, emphasis on monosyllables.

Simple = stuck.

These things will worm their way into your head and before you can finish the second how great thou art it’s another o’clock and it’s starting all over again.

The internet would have you believe that when you get one of these insidious tunes stuck in your head, singing Karma Chameleon is a good way to get it out.

I’m not even kidding. Someone conducted a study and found that listening to another song, more specifically Karma Chameleon, had a high success rate in unsticking the unwanted tune.

Which… wow. Can you think of a song more repetitive than that? Maybe it has just the right cadence of repetition so it gets in between the cracks of morning when it has broken.

Who knows.

The other thing they tell you to do is chew gum. Chewing, it seems, keeps you from vocalizing, and if you aren’t forming words you aren’t singing. Somehow gum interferes with your ability to form auditory imagery. I have never tried this but you can bet I’m going to get myself some Bazooka and put the theory to the test.

I have 260-odd days left to listen to bells. And now I can’t stop singing Karma Chameleon.

Photo: the offending church. At least the stained glass is pretty. And silent.