• Ty Vuong

What am I telling myself?

I've had this song stuck in my head for the last week or so now. Carry On by Falling in Reverse. (Here is a YouTube lyrical video version of the song for those of you interested).

"Gravity. Don't mean that much to me. Now I'm floating near the atmosphere, no shackles on my feet. I know I may be already gone, just promise you'll stay strong, and carry on..." - Falling In Reverse - Carry On.

I'm sure we've all experienced this phenomenon before. Where a song becomes trapped in our heads and we can't seem to shake it loose. We go about our normal day and as soon as our minds begin to drift, BOOM that song starts playing.

Colloquially they are known as "earworms". They are the songs or jingles that get stuck in your head and you cant seem to shake them out. In psychological research they are referred to as instances of Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) [In-Me is a clever naming pun in my opinion]. They are a type of involuntary memory; or a memory that you don't actively, or consciously, attempt to recall (Mace 2007).

The onset of INMI, researchers believe, is a collaboration of 4 abstract categories; musical exposure, memory trigger, affective (emotional) states, and low attention (Williamson et.al 2012).

And these categories, at face value, make sense. A person would have to had been exposed to the music to for it to be in their memory, they would need something to trigger a song in their mind, their emotional state could play a role in that song selection, and you need to have spare mental attention capacity to actually be able to play it in one's head.

Which leads us to this post today. This song that keeps playing. This all here is a reflection on what I explored when asking myself, Why is this song playing in my head? Above is the mechanics, exposure, and process, but what was the emotional memory trigger for me?

I came to a fairly obvious answer.

It's been a couple weeks since my grandma passed away. She was probably one of the coolest people I knew. Sharp wit. Strong. Committed. Patient. And she had more tattoos than I have. She will be missed by many. Yet, I believe in my heart she wouldn't want any of us to be sad with her death. She was grounded. Real. She wanted us to celebrate her life, not mourn her passing. [I'm not looking for sympathy, just providing context].

And for those of you that listened lyrically to the song above, it becomes apparent that the passing of a loved one, and my belief that she would want us to move forward, serves as the memory trigger and affective state causing this song to echo in my head.

Yet there is an irony in this song and my reflection of it.

Just the fact that it plays over in my head seems to insist I'm not ready to move forward quite yet. It is lyrically telling me to "Carry On", and I am living my life as I normally would [I believe my grandma would want me to], yet this songs involuntary recall has been happening for over a week. It seems to ironically be telling me to move on, yet is keeping me anchored in the feelings of death and end-of-life by its continued appearance.

Now, there could be a spiritual component involved here too. It could be argued that my grandma's spirit is playing this song for me. Telling/reminding me to Carry On. It is as if she is imparting her own special way of saying goodbye in death to those of us she didn't get the opportunity to in life.

Understanding the psychology behind involuntary memories and the concepts of retrieval efforts involved in INMI instances does provide a less ethereal explanation that I personally prefer, but I didn't want to rule out the spiritual for those of you reading.

Grief is powerful. And even though I don't outwardly display this grief in my daily life [again I don't believe grandma would want me to grieve], it doesn't mean that it is not invisibly pulling strings in the ol'noggin'. This silent-string-pulling could last weeks, months, or even years depending on the level of grief one is feeling.

And I find it as a fascinating and humbling experience.

Even though I have this learned awareness of the processes and systems in my mind. I am no more able to stop the earworm song from playing, stop the implications of grief, nor the subconscious emotional connection I have to a deeply moving song [that I think provides a beautiful potrayal of life itself within it].

But what I can do is exactly what I am doing here-and-now in this blog. Conducting an analysis of "how I feel" about "how I feel" [known as a secondary appraisal for my fellow PSYC nerds].

I think remembering we can analyze how we feel about how we feel/felt is the golden nugget TL;DR of this blog.

As life continues to hand us things both expected and unexpected, we will naturally experience all sorts of emotions. But, these emotions of sadness, elation, grief, or joy don't have to be the end-mark of how we felt, nor do they need to leave a permanent emotional gloss for the various memories in our mind.

They can instead be reassessed and re-analyzed to build a new on top of the old. This can be done to help us move past various emotional road blocks.

So as you encounter these tough times...

"Just promise you'll stay strong... and Carry On".


Williamson VJ, Jilka SR, Fry J, Finkel S, Müllensiefen D, Stewart L. How do “earworms” start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery. Psychology of Music. 2012;40(3):259-284. doi:10.1177/0305735611418553

Mace, J. H. (2007). Involuntary memory: Concept and theory. In J. H. Mace (Ed.), New perspectives in cognitive psychology. Involuntary memory (p. 1–19). Blackwell Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470774069.ch1

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