January 10, 2022
I’m glad Christmas is over. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not the religious holiday I’m talking about. It’s the music. But it’s not only the music. For example, I love “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and the way good old Bing Crosby does it. But must I hear the song at my local hardware store even before I’ve sat down for Thanksgiving turkey? And, having hardly digested the bird, must I suffer the onslaught of Christmas music for weeks to come?
OK, some of the songs I like, some I don’t. “The Little Drummer Boy”—sweet. “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”—I love that one. “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”—what a silly song, although I have to admit I loved it as a kid. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”—ugh. But it doesn’t really matter what I think. There’s just no choosing the music: when you’re at the baker, the laundromat, or the grocery store checkout counter, Christmas songs come at you willy-nilly and, what’s worse, over and over again. Added to my Yuletide unhappiness, they lodge in the head like unwanted guests who refuse to leave. The Germans in their language aptly call the condition Ohrwurm—earworm.
As last Christmas approached, I heard music wafting through the air while I was at the bank. Oh no, I thought, not that song again. I must have already heard “Winter Wonderland” half a dozen times in the last few days, with Christmas still a week away.
I probably enjoyed “Winter Wonderland” when I first heard it years ago. The song is warmhearted and lively, but it has since worn thin with repetition. Waiting in the bank-teller line, I was a captive audience forced to listen to a crooner sing the first bars:
Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?
In the lane, snow is glistening
A beautiful sight
We’re happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland
And then the very same, not-so-inspired tune once again:
Gone away is the bluebird
Here to stay is a new bird
He sings a love song
As we go along
Walking in a winter wonderland
But now came Section B with at least something of interest—two surprising harmonic shifts:
In the meadow we can build a snowman
And pretend that he is Parson Brown.
He’ll say, Are you married?
We’ll say, No man
You can do the job while you’re in town
What dumb lyrics, and who the hell was Parson Brown anyway? But never mind, the teller’s line was getting shorter and Section A, in the home key, had returned:
Later on, we’ll conspire
As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid
The plans that we’ve made
Walking in a winter wonderland
I left the bank hoping for at least a short respite from “Winter Wonderland” as Christmas neared, but, sadly, it was not to be. The song, now a malevolent earworm, had begun all over again in my head.
I’ve noticed something odd about earworms. You’d think the mind would allow only the most beautiful, the most substance-filled music to enter its lofty home. But no, sometimes laughably inane, vacuous tunes force entry, as if the brain against its better judgment has reluctantly let them in for further examination.
It would be unfair to put “Winter Wonderland” in the latter category. The song’s good cheer and upbeat nature have been enjoyed Christmas after Christmas. But at that moment there was nothing upbeat about the worm plaguing my inner ear, and to make matters worse, I had inexplicably begun “Winter Wonderland” in one key and then finished in another.
This was bad, very bad. What if word got around that I couldn’t end a simple Christmas song in the right key? For God’s sake, I’m a professional musician. I’d be ruined. They’d start calling me “Wrong Key Steinhardt”.
One thing was certain. I had to get to the bottom of this, and quickly. After all, why would any one hire me to perform, say, the Beethoven Violin Concerto that begins in the key of D, if I was in danger of ending in the key of F? It would be a scandal.
I decided to approach “Winter Wonderland” as if I were an auto mechanic trying to figure out whether the engine, the transmission, or the exhaust was the problem. Looking under the hood, so to speak, the first section of the song seemed to stay in the right key, but I soon discovered where I’d gone wrong. Moving into the middle section, I had mistakenly continued the melody up a whole step—wrong, but sounding perfectly fine—instead of correctly lowering it a half step. As a result, horror of horrors, I wound up in the wrong key.
Hurrah, problem solved. “Winter Wonderland” was now back in tip-top shape for me, but also for my—what should I call him—my willful pal, my irritating nemesis, the earworm. Not only that, no one will ever have to call me “Wrong Key Steinhardt”. That is, if you readers can keep a secret.
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I agree with you about Xmas music: I often play St. Matthew Passion at this time of year or Bach B minor Mass. Never thought about earworms: what a gastly thought. Thanks again.
Beautiful picture, charming worms. but thank god that music is gone for a while.
xoxo. to you both! I will call you soon. K
I couldn’t agree with you more!!! The deluge of awful xmas music starting even before Thanksgiving is indeed irritating, if not worse. We just have to play our Beethoven concertos louder, out the window if possible. Or wear headphones like the younger ones do — playing Berg’s violin concerto, or the “3 Pieces for Orchestra” instead of these awful earworms…
Have a great 2022! Orin O.
For me the holidays are about making money. I’m one of the normal musicians that has to really survive by making money at Christmas. I do wish everybody peace and joy at this time. And at the end of the year I do think about those lost to us during the year. However money does come first for a musician and therefore playing five church services on Christmas Day is fine with me.
Oh Arnold, bless your soul. These earworms!!!
have been driving me to destruction for years. The ones in the stores, in the elevators, in commercials (between serious newscasts, especially the ingratiating ones, digging holes in my head, popping in my head first thing in the morning.
Thank you thank you for bringing it up so aptly and persuasively. Love, Hava
A great read as always. You make my day. Thanks.
I wholeheartedly agree on all points/Christmas songs. The above photograph is splendid! Thank you for all these stories–I so enjoy them.
Sigh…Thanks for the “gift” of this all- too familiar earworm that is now cycling through my mind as I sit in my living room. Damn those sleigh bells! Yes, I’m listening!?
No wonder an “earworm” or earwig creates confusion, not only for musicians but also for entomologists, because this little creep is not a worm but an insect. :-)
Mark Twain addressed the same earworm in an essay called “Punch, brothers, punch!” This jingle was uttered by a streetcar conductor, the first line followed by “Punch in the presence of the pass-en-ger!” the last word made maddeningly unforgettable by a strong accent on the final syllable, “-ger!”)After days of obsessive repetition in his mind, he at last discovered the cure – pass it on to another poor, unsuspecting devil! Try it with Winter Wonderland and see if it works, and to hell with Parson Brown. And of course, Happy New Year yet once more, Dan
Thanks for this story – everybody can relate to being bombarded with “topical music” way before and during the holiday season.
Years ago, I had a similar experience with “It’s A Small, Small World” while visiting Disneyland. It’s a song I like, especially as a square dance singing call performed by one of my favorite callers. However, hearing it in continous play in the theme park, it very quickly lost its charm. Think about the people working there – hearing it a whole day long. It must be maddening.
When you look at a screen with a green wallpaper for some minutes and then switch over quickly to a whiteboard, it will appear magenta (the complementary color). Wonder if something like that can also happen to your sense of hearing – and what is the “complementary sound” of “It’s A Small, Small World”?
Wishing you all the best for 2022
Humbug. And to top it off, dissecting Winter Wonderland. Someone needs a job. I hear they are looking for musicians to start a new Chamber Music Group.
Alas,Mr. Steinhardt! You have brought back to my brain the very “ohrwurms” that have plagued me for the last month and a half, and only last week I had them extricated by a family doctor and close friend who specializes in these sorts of irritations and afflictions.
None the less, I will still wish for you and your family, to have a wonderful year (at least until Thanksgiving, when the whole cycle starts all over again!) Meanwhile, I will be enjoying your blogs as always…
the man with perfect pitch
there never was a hitch
not only perfect pitch but a deeply artistic aesthetic
and an open heart and open ears and “open” strings that for me, will play into eternity sandy
Happy 2022 and all the best wishes for the New Year.
I will keep your secret and also ask myself why I need to be bombarded with music everywhere I go. When I want to hear music, I go to a concert, put on a CD, or ask Alexa to play one for me. I don’t want it in restaurants when I am trying to hold a conversation with my dinner guests.
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