On Video Game Earworms and the Compulsive Singer

soundwave by GDJ on https://www.needpix.com/

Maybe being hypersensitive is why I’ve never gotten into video games.

I mean, visually, at least, three-dimensional games give me motion sickness. Flat games, the old school kind where you only had to pay attention to left and right and sometimes up and down, were fine. My only problem with them was my finger klutziness. But I’ve known since I played Battle Tanks in college that you can’t give me more directions than that or I have to take a nap immediately afterward.

But my kids would tell you it’s my hypersensitive ears that are the problem.

I do have sensitive ears when it comes to loud noises, and I like everything that is not music to be quiet (and music volume depends on the music). But I’ve got a weird auditory processing quirk that my kids find much more annoying: everything I hear reminds me of a song.

And then I start singing.

I don’t know why my kids are so against this. I’m a pretty good singer. Maybe it’s because I keep changing the words to reflect what’s going on around me.

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Anyway, so what does this have to do with video games? Video game music plays in loops. Over and over. Some of the loops are longer than others and some are good songs in their own right. Others are simply a tone or two—or noises—that repeat every time a certain action takes place. Some of the longer ones keep playing in certain settings no matter how long you stay there. The predictability stimulates the must-join-in-the-song lobe of my brain. I’m pretty sure some part of my mind decides the only way to deal with this repetitive noise is to become part of it. Let’s all join in the chant, it’s a spiritual experience! It’s not a chant? Then why did it keep repeating as if it wanted me to learn it?

But the real fun starts when those repetitive noises remind me of other things. See, there are, technically, only 12 notes to choose from. Rhythm can only be switched up so many times before it becomes nonsensical. And some musical instruments and combinations thereof just get used more often than others. When you think about it, it’s amazing anybody CAN still write an original song. And in instrumental music, when you don’t have words to distract you, it’s easier to catch a brief run of notes or a chord with the same instrumentation or some other combination of elements that has occurred in some other song.

My son keeps playing Pokemon Sword this weekend. Every time he gets a new Pokemon, it plays this song with the exact same rhythm as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Just the rhythm, really. There are a few descending notes at the very start that are the same, but otherwise, it’s not that similar. But it’s similar enough that I can’t not sing out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” whenever it happens. “That’s not even how it goes!” my son keeps saying, and I don’t really know how to explain it. You hear it or you don’t.

But the one I am sure about, no matter how much he tries to deny it: the so-called “stable music” on Breath of the Wild is totally “A Whole New World.” That one is so clear I can’t see how anyone can keep from singing. The record does show that the first thing I ever streamed on our Disney+ account was a brief clip from the middle of Aladdin because he happened to be playing BotW while I was setting up Disney+ on my laptop, and I had to take advantage of the proof at my fingertips. He still doesn’t believe me, though.

A couple of years ago I was torturing him with the fact that the bridge of the festival concert song in Super Mario Odyssey is clearly “Whistle While You Work,” so I don’t think he’ll ever find a game I don’t find something to sing along with. Even if he gets into my video game collection. By which I mean Wii Fit. I’m the only one who plays that one. But one of the menu songs on Wii Fit is a lighter, peppier version of the introduction to Tears For Fears’ “Head Over Heels,” so I can’t play my own video games without singing, either.

They used to outright make rules that I wasn’t allowed to sing in order to curb this habit. Now they just say, “NO,” whenever I start. But it’s a lost cause, kids. I hear a note, I start to sing. It’s not like they couldn’t listen to their games on headphones.

Nah. That wouldn’t stop me, either. The silence would remind me of a song, too.

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This post was last modified on January 9, 2020 4:09 pm

Amy Weir

Amy M. Weir is a public youth services librarian in SW Pennsylvania, and there’s nothing she geeks out about more. Outside of work she obsesses over music (especially rock especially psychedelic pop especially The Beatles), sews clothes, gardens when the weather’s nice, avoids housework, and generally is the poster-child for Enneatype 9, which she attempts to counteract with yoga when she remembers. Her entire family has ADHD. This includes an RPG-and-firearms-geek husband who asked her out by playing a Paladin-in-Shining-Armor devoted to serving her character in D&D; a vehicles-and-video-game-geek 12yo named after a hobbit; a My Little Pony-and-art-geek 10yo named after a SFF writer; and an Imaginary Husband named Martin Freeman, who isn’t actually aware of this relationship.

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  • From a like-minded person, I've got to say - awesome article. I've been known to do the same thing, although I struggle to come up with a concrete example at the moment.

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