Memory and Making the Most of Ear Worms

Ever got a tune stuck in your head? And couldn’t get it out?

As Oliver Sacks discussed (Musicophilia, 2008), ear worms are songs that repeat over and over in your head. The jury is out on how and why this happens: but we’ve all had the experience of that tune going round, right round, baby, right round-round, baby, round like a record, baby….

You get the idea! Let’s use this funny brain hiccup to help you and your students create a memory game embedded with the information you want your students to know inside out and backwards.

The game: Fruit Salad is a rhythm game that features word-based chants. The chants are repeated and layered an indeterminate number of times. The following score uses rhythmic chants of different lengths: 3, 4 and 5 beats long. When layered, the chants phase due to their different lengths.

Fruit Salad, Louise Campbell

How to toss the fruit salad:

  1. As a class, learn each chant by heart. Loop as many times as necessary until comfortable.
  2. Drop a word(s) from the chant and replace it with a rest(s). See boxes in the score above for suggestions of what to drop.
  3. Add a word(s) back into the chant.
  4. Find a way to add/drop words on the fly.
  5. Divide your class into 2-3 groups, and assign one chant per group. Ask each group to practice the chant until they can loop it easily and add/drop words on the fly.
  6. Bring the class back together and loop the chants at the same time, adding and dropping words at will.

On the level of memory, participants learn the chants by rote, and then challenge and integrate memory through the game of keeping their place in the chant as words are added and dropped. The result is a groovy group rhythm in which different words from the chants pop out at different times. The game itself is fun to play, and has all kinds of interesting musical possibilities.

Now imagine how you can make this game work for you and your students in terms of memory – say you use this game when teaching your students about nutrition. Chances are if you ask your students on a test to name a number of fruits, they will come out with the fruit in the chant they learned. What if you and your students made up a chant with examples of each of the major food groups? The information will be even more committed to memory if students come up with the chants themselves.

A chanting game can be made out of any material you want your students to memorize. Pick a topic and ask your students to brainstorm words associated to that topic. Then ask students to play with the words as rhythm, dropping and adding, arranging and re-arranging the words to be as groovy as possible. For best results for memory, the chants can be made to represent a ‘chunk’ of information, as in one chant dedicated to a specific food group.

The key is to boil it down to the essentials – words and rhythm – to make the chant rhythmic and catchy. In the process of playing with the words, your students will be committing the chant to memory, building their own earworms out of information needed to master a subject. Who knows how far you and your students will take it – want your students to memorize the Periodic Table of Elements? It has some fabulously rhythmic words that would make a great rap!

Playing the Music Game… Pep rally style!

Ever been asked to run a creative music workshop for 120+ teenage girls? I have, and had a great time with Trafalgar School for Girls. I was a wee bit nervous – that’s a lot of people, and when teens are enthusiastic about something, they outrun all your expectations, but if they’re not… well, that workshop could have been a real long hour. So, how was I going to get these girls excited and involved from the get-go?

My number one task in working with amateurs is putting people at ease, since people who are laughing and having fun are naturally creative. Games are great for this. I pulled out all the stops and ran the Traf workshop pep rally style by setting up a participatory music game in which the girls composed, sang and conducted their own music game based on the chanting game Fruit Salad.

Fruit Salad

The following scores are based on a chanting game in which three 4-beat rhythmic chants are repeated and layered an indeterminate number of times. I’ve used variations of this process in situations as diverse as summer camp music exploration for 30 kids, adult music composition classes for 6 people, and high school pep rallies, otherwise known as (insert your school name here) Spirit!

Instrumentation: Voice
Age range: 7 to older adults
Number of participants: 6 to 100+

I borrow the principle of layered rhythmic chants and adapt it by creating rhythmic chants of different lengths: typically 3, 4 and 5 beats long. When repeated, the chants phase due to their different lengths. Depending on the context, I compose the chants, as in the following score appropriate for 6-10 year olds.

Fruit Salad. Repeat each chant as many times as desired. Squares indicate words to drop and add (see The Game).

When possible, I ask participants to compose the chants, encouraging far greater creative input and ownership over the resulting score. The chants in the following score were composed by music students of Trafalgar School for Girls under the guidance of music teacher Kirsten Offer on the theme of ArtsFest, a bi-annual school-wide festival celebrating the arts. More chants were composed than are shown in this score; I selected and tweaked the chants that would work in the context of a 120+ person pep rally.

Traf Spirit! ArtsFest chant Trafalgar School for Girls

The Game

Three conductors, one per chant. Loud, louder, and chilling out. Trafalgar School for Girls

Now to turn these scores into a game: first, teach the chants by rote. Select a conductor(s) who indicates dynamics, entrances and exits. What happens if everyone starts together? What happens when the 3 and 4 beat chants start loud and decrescendo? What happens if the 5 beat chant starts alone, whispered?

Next choose a word or phrase from each of the chants to drop and replace with a rest. Then drop another. And another. Add one back in. And another. Add and drop differently from each of the chants. The gray squares around the words in the scores above are one way in which the words and phrases can be grouped to be dropped and added. Pay close attention to how you do this for your score – it has a huge effect on how groovy or square your piece sounds. Different words and rhythms pop out and line up in different and surprising ways, depending on how and when different words and phrases are dropped and added.

Now find a way to add and drop words on the fly: invent conducted hand signals for drop and add. Write the chants on a whiteboard and cover and uncover the words with pieces of paper. Be creative about how you lead this! Better yet, ask your participants to come up with ways to lead this game. Each group will come up with different solutions, resulting in different pieces from the same score. Have fun!