First, let me describe what is going on in my brain. I always, always, always have music playing in my head, as far as I can tell, even during dreams. As a child, I remember being fascinated by my incessant internal soundtrack. Like my synesthesia, I assumed everyone else also had endless brain music going on as well as something like my synesthesia. Perhaps is it normal to assume other people's perceptions are like our own.
Curious, I did a little reading up about what brain researchers call a "perpetual music track" or PMT and was astonished to find that this is supposed to be uncommon. An informal quizzing of several my musician friends makes me question this. My husband, my sister in law, and several of my friends also report perpetual musical imagery. More research needs to be done.
Second, I am writing this to explore how manipulating your own personal musical sound track might improve your daily life. My techniques might help even those who don't think that they incessantly playing brain music.
Surely everyone is influenced by music, whether they have a perpetual mental music track or not. Perhaps people who aren't conscious of having a perpetual music track still have some sort of unconscious musical neural looping going on, which might be subtly affecting mood and productivity. This is speculation.
I can list three areas positively affected by my deliberately supervising the song in my head: mood, concentration, and sleep.
My guess is that there is some part of my brain that, like my heartbeat, incessantly fires up various musical neural loops. I thought that the book Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks might shed some light on the phenomenon, but unless I missed something, I was disappointed. The only thing I got out of Sack's many fascinating anecdotes was that earworms (which I battle every day) might be a result of a sort of brain seizure type loop.
Perhaps some people just get this neural looping mechanism stuck on the "on" position. I don't know of any research into the biology behind this mechanism. I know am not alone in possessing a perpetual music track. A variety of folks have written about their "PMT" on the Internet. Canadian psychologist and musician Steven Brown, currently at McMaster University, popularized this term in analyzing his own in a self-study published on the web, and he kindly answered some of my questions about his research. His PMT shares some, but not all similarities with mine.
I was astonished that his paper suggests PMTs are "rare", although he admitted that in the eight years after he published his study he said he received letters from around fifty people who also have various forms of a PMT. In his paper he describes querying several musicians, reasoning that this profession would be the most likely to yield those with constant musical imagery. Although musicians certainly have above-average musical imagery, his informal polling suggested that most had nothing like a perpetual musical sound track.
I feel certain that my music track is perpetual; but I could be guilty of some inherent sampling error. I have thought of setting up a random timer go off to ask me what is playing at any time. In the meantime, I just stop several times a day (and night) and ask myself, what's playing now? And there is always something playing.
I can't think of a conscious time where I don't have anything playing. I can't imagine what that would feel like, to have no music in my head! I imagine it would be disorienting. I even have songs in my dreams, in fact, that is when they play loudest. There are stages of sleep where I am not conscious, of course, so whether or not that neural looping is going on at that time, I cannot tell.
Now, when I am consciously listening to music playing, or when I am making music, I don't have different music playing in my head. That is the only time I can think of when the internal imagery is replaced by something external. Other than when I am listening to music, the imagery is always internal.
After casually surveying a number of friends, even musicians, even the more universal experience of earworms seems not as common as I imagined. You know it if you have an earworm, too, because the experience often ranges from unpleasant to torturous. I experience at least several dozen earworms every single day. But only about half of my PMT consists of earworms, thank goodness. Let me first describe the nature of my personal PMT at bit.
This is fortunately not in the form of a hallucination: I know my ears are not hearing it, in other words. (Persistent musical hallucinations have been reported in the literature, more often a result of brain injury.) Since I have been meditating regularly, I am now in the habit several times a day of checking into my thoughts, and asking myself, "what's playing now?" And there is always, always something going. I've only recently become curious about this, and thus I feel I have been stupidly incurious about what my own brain has been playing for most of my life.
It has been well worth it for me to explore what is playing, because altering the tune deliberately, which requires some mental jujutsu at times, increases my daily productivity and happiness.
My music track comes in two very distinct modes: earworm mode and what I've labeled "dream music" mode. Dream music mode is a more pleasant mode for me to be in. I know immediately which of the two modes are looping when I take a look at what is playing (it is dream music right now for example).
My earworm mode is the common kind of earworm: someone else's music playing in my head. I have multiple earworms every single day. Often it is something I just heard, like National Public Radio bumper music. I know many musicians who complain that a piece they are trying to learn gets uncomfortably "stuck" in their heads, and I get that too. I get afraid of practicing harp and piano because I tend to get the practiced songs looping unpleasantly in my head and it really ruins my mood. Not conducive to practicing.
Dream music mode got its name because unlike earworms, it is extremely vivid in my dreams, and remains "loudest" right after I wake up from dreaming. But it isn't the best name because I have Dream Music when I am awake off and on throughout the day as well. Dream music is spontaneous involuntary compositions my brain churns out, that repeat over and over. I know that my Dream Music is original because it is not very good.
Actually, during my dreams, I will often think my Dream Music is marvelous, and then I wake up and think, well, that's it? and feel disenchanted. Seriously, I am not familiar with the tunes, and I think I would recognize them if I were. I have a pretty good musical memory.
I am personally curious about how on earth my brain comes up with this stuff, because it is effortless and unconscious. I have lately caught my brain picking up sounds in my environment, like creak of a door, or a phone ringing, even my stomach gurgling, or even motions that have a particular rhythm, and then my brain automatically turns that motif into dream music. However, most of the time I am not aware of how these form, and only discover them after the fact. For the technical musicians out there, I have analyzed my dream music tunes and observed common themes:
My Dream music is almost always only two or four phrases. One phrase will be resolved, and the other unresolved, and then it goes back to the resolved one, over and over between the two. By "resolved" I mean that the phrase ends on either the root, or the third, or the fifth. By "unresolved", I mean the phrase ends on some other interval, which creates musical tension. Dream music is also almost always in a major mode. (Ionian or C major is the most common, mixolydian second most common, and sometimes I get the somewhat wistful lydian or less commonly a minor aeolean or dorian playing). It is usually in 4/4 time, occasionally 3/4, and less often something more complex. Sometimes my dream music notes march along dutifully on the beat, like an old hymn, and sometimes they are playfully syncopated.
Although hearing a two-phrase melody out loud would drive most people, including me, banana boats, it actually does not bother me when this little ditty loops over and over in my brain. But when I play it on purpose out loud, it wears thin fast. After adding a baseline and a bridge, I'll think the result might be worth playing without having anyone throw anything at me. Dream music is simple and repetitive; on par in complexity with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or Mary Had a Little Lamb. Imagine either of those tunes (without the relief of the "up above the world so high" bridge section in Twinkle) and then stopping and repeating them over and over and you will get an excellent sense of what my dream music is like. While my earworms can extend for several measures before looping, my dream music is more abbreviated, I don't know why.
Unlike Steven Brown, my PMT does not seem to affect my peripheral nervous system in the form of unconscious feet tapping and the like. My PMT does not make my body move in any way, but I am not a natural fidgeter. My husband is, and I always marvel to hear him tapping out some mysterious rhythm in his studio below my office. His unconscious mind broadcasts into my space this way so often that I just put in earplugs before I even start writing. I have a theory that some people's central nervous system is more wired into their peripheral motor system. These are the people who, like Tim, need to talk with their hands, and who fidget a lot. I am not one of these people.
Curiously, my Dream Music is actually not what I would consciously compose if I were trying to sit down and compose for fun. I love composing probably more than anything when I play. When I was a teenager I loved to compose in minor modes and I would have cringed to play these mostly major mode motifs. I was pathetically angst-y as many teenagers are, so a somber minor mode used to appeal to me more then. I have changed a lot, as I now prefer happier major modes, and particularly like experimenting with alternating between major and minor or more exotic modes in a piece.
There are other big differences between my earworm music and dream music, besides one being other people's music and one being original. The instrument in earworm music is clearly "visible" to me, that is, I can tell whether it is strings or piano or drums playing. Also, I am aware of several instruments playing, and on top of one another, just as I would be if I were listening to the piece. I have always had a knack for playing by ear so I think I am not bad at replaying the details of music I have heard.
However, dream music has a curious quality where I actually can not tell what the hell the instrument is. It is a single note, rarely overlapping with other notes, with occasional rare hints at harmony in the background. Perceiving the instrument being played is something I have given up on. It very much has a quality of trying to see something fuzzy in your peripheral vision. The harder I try to look at it, the fuzzier it gets. Even prominent dream ditties I have upon waking can have a nebulous quality. Even the intervals, which I'm usually good at discerning in played music, take some work to make themselves visible to me.
I am reminded of the old astronomer's trick of looking at faint objects like distant galaxies with averted vision. If you look directly at faint sky objects, they almost disappear, because the centers of your eyes don't distinguish black and white as well as the sides of your eyes, and astronomical things have little color. The trick to seeing faint things in the dark is to look using peripheral vision, and be satisfied with that, and that trick works quite well. For dream music, I also have this "sneaking up on it" sensation when I am trying to figure out how it goes sometimes. That works well too. It helps me determine the melody. But the instrument? Whatever it is, it is not that distinctive. It sure isn't harmonica or accordion! My dream music instrument feels like my mind's inner voice, which must be so bland that it is somehow camouflaged. I have no idea what it is.
Certainly there are usually no lyrics to my dream music. Although I love singing, and think words in music have their place and can be a very fine thing, my synesthesia always has me uncomfortable about whether lyrics actually belong in music. (I realize this feeling is probably offensive to people who love music with lyrics and so I try to keep it to myself.) Let me explain: a melody line is too much like speech in itself, and when you put words to something that already sounds like speech, it feels like too much of a confusing overlap of two pieces of information to me. I think this is why I have a hard time listening to people talk when music is playing in the background. I certainly can't read with music playing. But how my synesthesia affects my life is another story.
Another difference between dream music and earworm music is when they are most active. I have always had vivid, colorful dreams, and enjoy keeping a dream diary for so many years now, that it is several thousand pages long. Dream music is loudest in my dreams, although sometimes I dream with other people's music playing. (Recently I think I had some Verdi opera in a dream about swimming in a rooftop hotel pool for example.)
But when I am dreaming, I always have something playing, and 95% of the time, it seems, it is dream music. I will wake with dream music still playing loudly. Lately I have taken to recording them, keeping a recorder by my bed, although I have not done this consistently. I can't record them all, there are just too many. I have several different tunes play throughout the course of the night, and several during the day too. I now have hundreds of these short ditties recorded and don't know what to do with them. I consider the recordings personal brain research. In recording them I have been able to tell that they go through phases. Some weeks I have dream music which emphasizes the minor seventh, other weeks a Celtic sounding pattern will emerge, for example. This past week a theme of ending a phrase with a little five-note descending scale has emerged and remained quite persistent. I have no idea what triggers the various themes.
Earworms play more often when I am awake, but they also literally wake me up. When I have insomnia I almost always have some earworm playing. This is an important discovery for me. This has led me to a breakthrough treatment for my insomnia. If I can get rid of the earworm somehow--like replace it with my dream music--I can go to sleep.
As you may have gathered, one critical distinction between earworm mode and dream music mode is the mood it puts me in! I am usually in a creative, happy, productive mood when I am in dream music mode. When I am in earworm mode I am typically either a little irritable, anxious, or uncomfortable. It doesn't matter whether or not I like the earworm music. Having an earworm, even music I love, makes me vaguely cranky. When I realize I am in an irritable mood, I now take a look now at "what's playing", and deliberately try to switch it to dream music mode, and I quickly feel happy again, like magic.
My ability to focus and think clearly is also affected by what is playing in my brain. Earworms can be so loud that I can not read. It will be the end of a long day, and my husband and I will curl up with good books and our cats and be as cozy as can be, and I simply cannot read. This is torture. I find myself skimming over words, while this damn song is screaming around in my brain, and I just have to stop and work to dislodge the earworm. I can't always get into dream music mode. Sometimes all I can do is switch to a less intrusive earworm, but all earworms make it hard to read.
I have learned to work to deliberately switch from earworm mode to dream music mode using some mental tricks, although this takes effort. It is worth it. One trick I use is to switch to another earworm, at least one that I am more comfortable with. I recommend coming up with a personal playlist of earworm anti-venom pieces to help you if you get several a day as I do! I keep a playlist on my computer, and if I am having trouble concentrating, working at my computer, due to an intrusive earworm, I just start playing my playlist for a bit, to try to knock it out. My personal favorite earworm replacements are the theme songs from Get Smart, Dr. Who, Ghostbusters, or Henry Mancini's Pink Panther, all of which are not merely fun, but also somewhat deliciously silly. They are musically interesting enough to capture my brain's attention, providing a "sticky" quality so they stay in my brain. Even as earworms, which I prefer not to have, these pieces all put a smile on my face.
I tried manipulating other people's PMTs when I was young, simply assuming that everyone had one like I did. I realized that songs put you in a certain mood, and marveled at how powerfully either a major or minor mode instantly, and seemingly magically changed your mood.
I can remember as a little girl playing happy pieces on my piano to see if this prevented my parents from arguing so loudly, a situation that made me frequently miserable. I liked to think that at least this was one way I could secretly manipulate other people's moods to make them nicer. I can't remember what the results of my experiments were, but I determined I wanted to study both brain biology and music when I grew up.
Steven Brown describes his musical background in his PMT article, so I may as well do the same.
Like him, I grew up playing the piano early, at age seven, but unlike him, I was in no way a dedicated practicer. Rather than work on any technique, I would sweat it out trying to read one piece, memorize it, and then I would victoriously play it to death. After years of playing harp and piano I think I am still only a little above average in my playing ability.
In the past decade I have learned to work on technique and practice! When I practice more I transiently get better, of course, as all people do. I also did not play with other musicians other than casual jamming or street busking. Had I done more of that I probably would have been forced to be better and more focused. My harp teacher has been for the past few years forcing me to see how challenging playing in a group can be!
I do not have perfect pitch, but I think I am above average at least in my ability to recognize intervals. I think about musical phrases mostly in terms of numerical intervals--the distance between two notes. Secondarily I think, oh, what's the rhythm, there? And I try to picture that as well, though I find that harder to do. Reading music has been a struggle most of my life and I have only in the past ten years employed my synesthesia to force myself to learn how to do that at long last.
Spontaneous composing is the most natural way for me to do music, although I would not say it is anything great. It is a lot of fun, for me. I call it "doodling", because it feels like playful scribbling according to my synesthetic colored hearing.
When I was a little girl I would hear some music to a television show or movie and fall in love with it, and rush to my piano to work it out, to the amusement of my family. I wanted to capture the magic before it went away, so I could play it again for myself at any time. So I love to play by ear. It is a great way to figure out why you love a particular piece. What is it about that interval that speaks to me? I will ask myself, and then try to incorporate that motif into my compositions. I feel I have only scratched the surface in learning what is out there in the land of music.
1. What music do you have in your head right now? How does this music make you feel? Is this how you want to feel?
Decide if you want to change it. How would you do that?
2. Keep an earworm log. Whenever you recognize you have an earworm bugging you, write down what it is and how it makes you feel. Was there something (time of day, location, activity) that brought it on? How long did it last? If you worked to get rid of it successfully write down how you did that. I have a goto playlist of earworm-buster pieces that help me, for example.
3. Set a watch or alarm to go off either on the hour, or randomly, and tune into what music might be going on in your head when it goes off.
4. If there is nothing playing in your head, make a note of that as well. How does nothing make you feel, compared to the times you have had music?
5. Try humming or, if you are able, playing some of whatever music is playing in your head at set times every day, like right after you wake up, or right after a certain meal.
6. What would be the ideal track right now for what you are doing? Nothing at all, just peaceful silence? Something fast, slow, happy, or sad? Complex or simple? What instrument(s) would be playing?
7. Keep a recorder by your bedside if you have music in your dreams, and resolve to sing or hum something of the gist of what you remember when you wake up, as soon as you wake.
8. Is there a radio or TV on that is broadcasting some music into your house that might be putting people on edge? Try playing something completely different to see how that feels for everyone.
9. Locate the music in space. If you have music playing in your head, where does is it feel like it is coming from, physically? Your forehead? The back of your head? Your gut? If it had a shape or color, what would it look like?
10. Dampen some foam earplugs with sterile contact lens solution, and put them in your ears (this makes them work better, for me.) See how the silence helps you focus on what you are doing. Do you find silence comfortable or threatening?
11. If you have insomnia, ask yourself if you have an earworm playing as well. Work to think of some other catchy song, to replace it, or make up a song to replace it. See if this helps you fall asleep again.
12. Do you have your own exercises to add?
Here are comments migrated from the original site
Thank you for contributing to what seems to me an all too scanty database of this fascinating phenomenon. You are lucky not to have the chronic earworms, though I am learning how to better manage them by substituting my own "dream music" in its place, which instantly makes me feel better. I so often wonder how much of human suffering is simply caused by the "wrong music" looping subconsciously in people's brains, affecting their moods. Clearly this is an area wide open for research.
Posted by: holly erskine | 04/22/2015 at 12:10 PM
I just read your article on dream music, the ability to spontaneously compose music in the mind. You were describing me. Every waking minute my mind is composing new music. Fortunatly, most of it I enjoy. Unlike you, I don't experience earworms. Everything is spontaneously composed.
If I don't want to hear the music I listen to actual music to tune it out. Reading also quiets the noise. If I don't care for a tune I can compose something else instantaneously.
I've had this as long as I can remember. As you mentioned I thought everyone experienced this. But the reality is that I've never known anyone else with this condition.
I studied music as a child,played the trumpet in the school band for 6 years, but beyond that I have no formal music training.
Thanks for your artical. It's good to know that I'm not the only person blesses, or cursed with this.
Posted by: Deborah Walker | 04/14/2015 at 06:35 PM
Posted by: Holly Phaneuf Erskine | 05/10/2022 at 03:30 PM