Bonus resources / Human mind, feelings & emotions

Musical earworms??

As well as summarising some key points that I discussed in Is listening on repeat … an addiction? this short TED-Ed cartoon created by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis introduces the concept of ‘musical earworms‘, the common phenomena of music stuck in your head.



Musical earworms:

  • The word earworm originated from the German word Ohrwurm (literally translates to ear worm)
  • A 1978 novel called Flyaway is the earliest known printed version of the term
  • but reference to the phenomenon of repeating music can be traced back to 1876
  • Musical earworms usually last longer for musicians
  • Earworms are always part of a familiar song to the person experiencing them
  • Earworms are unlikely to persist for more than 24 hours
  • The length of the earworm and the duration of it being ‘stuck in your head’ exceeds the general capacity for remembering audio
  • Passive acceptance of the earworms proves more successful than active attempts to block the song out
  • 90% of people will encounter earworms at least once a week
  • The earworm phenomena shows similar elements to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Little is known about the location of the brain that is active when earworms are occurring or what triggers the earworm experience
  • Research has found chewing gum could ‘smother’ the earworms

earworm in the grass

Musical earworms & gum

Some scientists in 2014 decided to test a theory. The theory was that gum might reduce the occurrence of musical earworms, because who wants to have songs stuck in their head for hours at a time? They had three experiments to try to prove this theory.

  1. Listen to 30 seconds of “Play Hard” by David Guetta featuring Flo Rida and Akon, then sit there for 3 minutes and not think about the song, when they thought about it they had to push a button, then they had to sit for a further 3 minutes and they could now think about whatever they wanted but still had to push the button when they thought of that specific song. Participants of the study were trialled twice, once when they were given gum to chew vigourously and another time when they weren’t given gum. Their results indicated that when the participants were able to chew gum they did not think about the song as often.


    (Beaman, Powell & Rapley, 2015)

  2. The second experiment was exactly the same except they introduced a new button, if the participants thought of the song they had to press the q button, but when they experienced the music playing in their heads then they had to press the p button. The results of this experiment confirm that the involuntary music thoughts are mostly of the music playing in their head or an earworm (rather than a thought about the song), it also shows the gum having the most effect on reducing the earworm occurrence.

  3. In the last experiment participants were trialled as before but using a different song: Payphone by Maroon 5, for two minutes of duration. After listening to the song they were told to sit for 2 minutes where they were either chewing gum, tapping the fingers of their dominant hand, or not doing anything. They were told not to think of the song and to push a button when they thought of it’s tune. The results show that when the participants had nothing to do while sitting there they thought of the tune the most, while chewing gum seemed to reduce the occurrences of earworms in participants more than tapping the fingers.


The combined results of these three mini experiments suggest that chewing gum decreases the amount of times we encounter a thought of a recently played song, the gum specifically decreases the replaying of the song in our head (earworms), and decrease cannot be attributed to the fact that our brain is busy with the chewing movement, as when the tapping is in place we don’t see as clear of an effect.

So… chewing gum might be a new lifehack?

Do you have another method to get the songs out of your head?

blowing gum

References used:

Beaman, C. P. and Williams, T. I. (2010), Earworms (stuck song syndrome): Towards a natural history of intrusive thoughts. British Journal of Psychology, 101: 637–653. doi: 10.1348/000712609X479636

Beaman, C. P., Powell, K., & Rapley, E. (2015). Want to block earworms from conscious awareness? B (u) y gum!. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68(6), 1049-1057.


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