Liturgy Lines: “Earworms”

by Elizabeth Harrington

This post originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on November 3rd, 2016

Earworms *

The words “You give yourself to us O Lord, so selfless let us be” had been running around in my head for days after we sang it at Communion recently. Often the refrain of the psalm we have sung will pop into my head when I least expect it. I wondered if this was just me, so on Monday morning at a parish scripture discussion group that I facilitate, I asked participants what (if anything) has stuck in their heads since Mass that weekend or what things from the liturgy sometimes stay with them in the days after they have been at Mass.

The comments were very interesting.

One gentleman said that he had found himself humming the response of the psalm from the feast of Christ the King all week: ‘Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord’. “So”, he said, “I decided that I would rejoice as I went to church the following Sunday and made a special effort to smile at everyone I saw and said a prayer of thanks to God after I arrived. You can imagine how delighted I was when the cantor got up to run through the psalm refrain before Mass and it was exactly the same one.”

Others agreed that more often than not it was the refrain of the psalm or from a hymn that was their earworm from Mass. What this reinforced for me is the importance of singing by the assembly at liturgy. And repetition, because it is the refrains they have repeated that stay with people and become incorporated into their prayer during the week.

Sometimes the musicians say “We’ve used that in Advent the last two years. Let’s try something new.” But of course, the point at which the musicians are getting tired of certain hymns is the very time when the assembly is getting to know a piece well.

I am sure that one of the reasons Greg and others kept singing ‘Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord’ is the strong melodic setting by Christopher Willcock SJ that was used on both occasions. So ‘sing-ability’ too is important when hymns for the assembly are chosen.

Interestingly, a couple of members of the group said that it was the final hymn sung unaccompanied by the cantor that had been going around in their heads. They also commented that they have noticed it is only used during Advent so for them it has become a piece of music they associate with this time of the year.

So the learning for me – and for all pastoral musicians – from this discussion is that when choosing music for liturgy the key things to look for are sing-ability, repetition, seasonal music and good theology.

What is your earworm from Mass on Sunday?

* Wikipedia defines an earworm as a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person’s mind after it is no longer playing. Phrases used to describe an earworm include “musical imagery repetition”, “involuntary musical imagery”, and “stuck song syndrome”.

“Liturgy Lines” are short 500-word essays on liturgical topics written by Elizabeth Harrington, Liturgy Brisbane’s education officer. They have been published every week in The Catholic Leader since 1999.

Copyright © 2016 Elizabeth Harrington, Archdiocese of Brisbane.


  1. Re: “You can imagine how delighted I was when the cantor got up to run through the psalm refrain before Mass and it was exactly the same one.”

    I do love how the refrain from the last Sunday of Cycle C and the first Sunday of Cycle A are the same. It knits the liturgical cycles together so nicely. The end is the beginning… (and our director of music and her husband wrote a wonderful tune to accompany that psalm, which we sang last weekend and the weekend before, and which has gone through my mind many times since)

  2. More often for me it’s the settings of the Ordo that offers earworms for good or, more commonly, for ill. I am normally more sensitive to the quality (or lack thereof) of those than of hymns. The Ordo is the music main course, and hymns are mere condiments, so it’s normally easier to go to my special place for hymns (or, if it’s a final hymn, to leave if necessary).

  3. It’s funny how it works. Some tunes, I only hear once a year, and they linger for weeks. Pange Lingua, Stabat Mater Dolorosa, the Exsultet, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, and so on, just to name a few, resonate for long periods of time.

    I’ve only been to a Greek Orthodox Paschal service twice, and I still get “Christos anesti ek nekron” stuck in my head for days.

  4. My experience is that music directors, as professional musicians who love their craft, tire of the “same” music far more quickly than the assembly. I also love music but I’m always mindful of the need to offer worshipers music that is familiar enough for them to enter the song. This may be especially true of alternative psalm refrains. Who gains by moving away from the refrain that the assembly already owns to one the director thinks we need to know as well? I find that annoying although I often just push through it. Maybe the people do the same. I would like to think that how the assembly and its pastor sings the liturgy is at least as important as is further expanding the repertoire. For heaven’s sake we already sing well more than three hundred songs, seven or eight settings of the ordinary, and dozens of psalms.

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