Por una cabeza

23rd August 2010 | Daily Life, Inspirations | 6 comments

I’ve been struggling to get rid of what the Germans call an ‘Ohrwurm’, a catchy tune that goes round and round in your head whether you want it to or not. My Ohrwurm is an early-20th-century Argentine tango, El Choclo, ‘the ear of corn’, which I heard played on the accordion by Pete Rosser in an evening of tangos I took part in recently. Since then it has played itself about 8 million times in my head. I’ve also listened to many versions of it on the internet, enjoying especially the older historical recordings with their wonderful atmosphere.

Searching for old Argentine tangos, I came across the heritage of Carlos Gardel, the  ‘king of tango’ whom I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about before. On his Wikipedia page (which is fascinating in itself) there’s a sound clip of his 1935 tango ‘Por una Cabeza’. It instantly transports me far from present-day suburban London. It’s from a time and a culture quite different to mine, but through the power of music and Gardel’s enchanting voice I feel completely immersed as I listen.


  1. Gretchen Saathoff

    Hi Susan,

    Something that always gets stuck in my head is anything by Gilbert & Sullivan. It only takes about 2 rehearsals. And, since the rehearsals are at night, that makes going to sleep difficult.

    Here is a trick passed along to me by a voice teacher at Smith College: When something gets stuck in your head and you want to get it out, just sing “The Star-Spangled Banner!”

    Hmmmm… how many people outside the U.S. would know that song?


  2. Alison

    For a British equivalent to “he Star Spangled Banner” one would need to find something equally venerable … How about the theme music to ‘The Archers’?

  3. Steve Zade

    Oliver Sacks on earworms as a modern phenomenon, from his book “Musicophilia”: “Although earworms have no doubt existed since our forbears first blew tunes on bone flutes or beat tattoos on fallen logs, it is significant that the term has come into common use only in the past few decades. When Mark Twain was writing in the 1870s, there was plenty of music to be had, but it was not ubiquitous… To hear instrumental music, unless one had a piano or other instrument at home, one would have to go to church or a concert. With recording and broadcasting and films, all this changed radically. Suddenly music was everywhere for the asking, and this has increased by orders of magnitude in the last couple of decades, so that we are now enveloped by a ceaseless musical bombardment whether we want it or not.”

  4. peter

    Steve — I am not sure Sacks is correct there about the lack of ubiquity of music in the 1870s. The computer pioneer Charles Babbage waged a long and vigorous campaign in London in the 1850s and 1860s against noise and street musicians, particularly organ grinders. Sadly for Babbage, his campaign was entirely counter-productive, since the organ-grinders retaliated by playing outside his house at all hours of the day and night.

  5. Pete Rosser

    Por Una Cabeza – as featured in films True Lies and Scent Of A Woman!

  6. Nico

    Por una cabeza is the tango that Al Pacino and Gabrielle Anwar dances to in the film Scent of a Woman – one of my favourite scenes in film. I have not thought about this for ages, so thank you for reminding me of this wonderful piece of music and scene, Susan!!


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