A Simple Trick to Get a Song Out of Your Head

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I get at least one song stuck in my head every day, and many of my favorite tunes have been completely ruined after their hundredth mental play-through. Science of Us has grappled before with the question of how to get rid of an earworm, but new research recently published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that there’s been a simple solution all along: chew gum.

Testing the theory that interfering with “articulatory motor programming” — that is, the motor skills involved in speech — by chewing can disrupt the formation of unwanted musical memories, researchers at the University of Reading conducted three experiments involving chewing gum and listening to catchy tunes. (The initial idea for the research came from an inauspicious source: an anonymous online post touting the anti-earworm benefits of chewing on cinnamon sticks.)

The first had participants listen to “Play Hard” by David Guetta, who is perhaps the king of earworm-producing music, and then report any time they thought about the song (as opposed to hearing it in their heads) — both when they were actively trying to suppress the song from their memory and when told they could “think freely” about whatever they wanted. The second experiment was essentially the same, but participants reported both when they just thought of the song and when they actually heard the music play in their heads.

In both experiments, gum chewing significantly reduced how often people thought of the song and how often it played in their heads, lending support to the articulatory motor programming theory. But can earworms be avoided by engaging in motor activity of any kind? The study investigated that question in the third experiment. After listening to “Payphone” by Maroon 5 — another contender for catchiest song of the millennium — one group chewed gum and another tapped their fingers. The tapping did help fight earworms a bit, as it turned out, but significantly less so than chewing gum. 

The takeaway? Next time you have a song stuck in your head, don’t lose sleep over it; grab some Wrigley instead.