Working on the New York Times crossword puzzle, for me, usually goes a little something like this.
Easy, at first. In one long streak, like a steadily held note, I can complete clue after clue. Then, I’m stumped, like the end of that long note droning out. Finally, an avalanche of answers flood my brain, like the flutter of a triplet. I might get stuck, needing a short rest, before nailing the final two clues — think of that as a short hit on the upbeat of a song followed by a staccato on the downbeat. And, when completion hits, it’s like a song that ends on a perfect button.
And that’s kind of exactly how the little ditty you hear after winning the New York Times crossword feels to me. Titled the “San José Strut” there isn’t much known about the song except that it absolutely slaps. But what makes a nine-note melody, like the one that plays at the completion of the crossword, provide me with such unadulteratedly joy?
Part of it might be that I am completely weak for a little ditty.
I adore the way it sounds when I walk into a Target (ding dong), because it reminds me of the single activity you could do with friends in my small town: walk around Target, buy nothing, return home. The noise my email used to make when it was sent from the family room computer (woosh) filled me with nerves and excitement every time. The start-up sound of my Game Cube as a kid (buh duh ding) told my brain that I was about to lose at Mario Kart with my brothers. Memories can be deeply embedded in all sounds and music, as short as one single note — the bell that used to ding in my dad’s white Chevrolet Silverado when the truck was ready for him to fully turn the key — or as long as an entire song, like the intro music to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But a little ditty, I would say, is somewhere between those two. It’s under 10 seconds long, but longer than one full second. It plays for something specific, like a jingle. And it’s undeniably catchy.
Victory sounds are not new. Think about Zelda‘s “you discovered a secret!” jingle, Final Fantasy‘s victory music, and Xbox Achievement or PlayStation Trophy sounds.
According to Game Sound: An introduction to the History, Theory, and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design by Karen Collins, some music involved in gaming can “create the illusion that winning is more common than losing, for you do not hear the sound of losing.” Think of slot machines: you don’t hear anything when you lose, but hear the winning bell and crashing of coins each time you win even a penny.
Tunes can also just make you feel good. Scientific research confirms that music stimulates the brain. It helps to encourage the release of dopamine in the reward area of the brain, Dr. Amit Sood, a physician of integrative medicine with the Mayo Clinic, told the Times in a piece about how music can improve worker productivity.
So, this is all part of it. At about three seconds long, the “San José Strut” a perfectly-written tune. The music gives me joy, not only because music triggers dopamine, but also because I associate it with winning. But that’s not all of it.
I consider winning the New York Times crossword puzzle a high honor.
I consider winning the New York Times crossword puzzle a high honor. I can always solve the smaller, mini crosswords, but the larger puzzles hold me hostage in their thesaurus-abused grips. So, when I do win a game, it makes me feel smart. It makes me feel good about myself. I’ve conditioned myself that when I hear those few notes, I consider myself a winner.
There’s scientific reason behind why I connect that noise with the gratification of winning. Think about this study in which researchers shocked a mouse every time it heard a sound. After some time, mice would jump when they heard the sound, even without the shock. I’ve spent so much time playing the Times’ crossword, that I’ve created my own mousy jolt of joy when I hear those good, good notes to the “San José Strut.”
And, while I can’t always finish the longer crossword puzzles, the jingle at the end keeps me playing.