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TEST YOURSELF: That song stuck in your head

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Love them or hate them, some songs just get stuck in your brain

Test Yourself is where you can improve your reading skills. Whether it’s for tests like University Entrance Exams or IELTS and TOEFL, or even just for fun, these stories help you to read, understand and improve your English.

You can download a PDF of this story to be used in class or at home. Click the link below. 

Read the following story by Suwitcha Chaiyong from the Bangkok Post. Then, answer the questions that follow.

After “Dance Monkey” by Australian singer-songwriter Tones and I topped a music chart recently, its lyric got stuck inside the head of many listeners. “Oh, I see you, see you, see you every time. And oh my, I, I like your style.” People couldn’t get it out of their brain.

This condition is called earworms, also known as sticky music or stuck-song syndrome, which happened among Thais earlier this year when many people were reportedly unable to stop hearing in their heads the Chip 'N' Dale chirp from the Thai-themed animated short Our Floating Dreams. Back then, the Department of Mental Health went so far as to issue tips for those who had this song stuck in their head.

Digital music service Spotify noticed the repeat behaviour of listeners and a couple of months ago decided to launch what they call On Repeat and Repeat Rewind playlists for each user, based on their listening habits. To find out more about how catchy songs or earworms take their toll on people and how to get rid of them, we interviewed Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the Music Cognition Lab at Princeton University in the US. Margulis' research approaches music from the combined ideas of music theory and cognitive science — the study of how we understand things. Her book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind received two awards. Her latest book, The Psychology of Music: A Very Short Introduction, was released last year. [Her answers have been edited for BP Learning.]

What are earworms?

Earworms tend to be short sections of a tune that was heard recently and often. They typically loop as if stuck on repeat.

Why are you interested in earworms?

Earworms are a very common example of a kind of hallucinatory experience -- without even trying, people hear things that aren't there. These kinds of strange events often have a lot to tell us about how the brain works.

Are earworms in other languages similar to English-language earworms?

Earworms have cropped up in all the places and languages they've been studied so far.

Why are some earworms enjoyable, but some annoying?

Since earworms are by definition out of our control, we're really at the mercy of what gets stuck. If it's from a song that makes us feel great, an earworm might be OK, but if it's from some horrible commercial song, it might feel extremely unpleasant.

Can earworms be harmful or have effects on mental illnesses?

Most people experience earworms fairly regularly. They are absolutely normal. In some exceptional cases, however, people can experience more serious, chronic kinds of earworms that can interfere with daily life. This is quite rare, however.

What is your favourite earworm at the moment?

My whole family often has earworms from Vulfpeck's “Birds of a Feather, We Rock Together,” sometimes even at the same time!

What's the best method to get rid of earworms?

Studies show that chewing gum can get rid of earworms. Other suggestions include throwing yourself into a difficult task, or listening to a different song.

What is your advice for executives at music labels who want to create successful earworms?

Earworms typically possess a familiar enough structure that they're easy to remember, but also some kind of hook or feature that prevents them from being normal.

Section 1: Read through the story and answer the following questions. 

1. An earworm is a small animal that lives in your ear. True or false? …………….

2. Which university does Margulis work at? …………….

3. Her latest book won two awards. True or false? …………….

4. Earworms can show scientists how the brain works. True or false? …………….

5. Earworms only occur with English-language songs. True or false?  …………..

6. Everyone hates earworms. True or false? …………….

7. Very rarely, earworms can negatively affect daily life. True or false? …………….

8. Chewing gum can make earworms stop. True or false? …………….

Section 2: Write the noun form of the following words. 

9. unable. 10. animated. 11. rare. 12. prevents. 13. normal.

Section 3: Read the following passage. Then, fill in the blanks with the correct words from the choices given.

Why do some …14…, such as waiting, driving or being alone, make songs stick in our heads more than usual?

Earworms …15… occur more frequently when people are in low-attention states. It could be that earworms also …16… just below consciousness in other kinds of situations, but we're …17… busy doing other things to notice them. Or it …18… be that earworms …19… develop more readily when the brain is in this kind of state.

14. a. situation  b. places c. situations

15. a. like to b. tend t   c. have to

16. a. exist b. be c. can

17. a. then b. too  c. even 

18. a. should b. could  c. would

19. a. truly b. madly c. deeply

Section 4: Find words that match the following definitions.

20. the words in a song ……………

21. activities people do regularly ……………

22. to repeat ……………

23. very rare …………

24. a memorable part of a song ……………

Answers: 1. False. 2. Princeton University. 3. False. 4. True. 5. False. 6. False. 7. True. 8. True. 

9. inability. 10. animation. 11. rarity. 12. prevention. 13. normality.

14. c. 15. b. 16. a. 17. b. 18. b. 19. a. 

20. lyric. 21. habits. 22. loop. 23. exceptional. 24. hook.

SCORE 21-24: Excellent! 17-20: Good.   13-16: Fair.   12 or fewer: You'll do better next time!

Learn from listening

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