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It's almost "song of the summer" time. Whether that belongs to Taylor Swift ("Style"), Britney Spears ("Pretty Girls") or someone else, one thing's clear, you won't be able to avoid it. It will get relentlessly stuck in your head.
A new study offers hope for those earworms.
A simple sliver of gum may banish those irritating scraps of music that embed themselves in our brains, British researchers found.
A series of experiments revealed when people chewed gum right after listening to an especially catchy tune, they were less likely to be plagued by the pesky piece of music, according to the study published this week in The Journal of Experimental Psychology.
“The study was based on the idea that there is an overlap between the memory systems responsible for recalling speech and music and those systems responsible for actually producing speech and music,” says C. Philip Beaman, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of cognitive science at the Centre for Cognition Research and the School of Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading, U.K. “There is evidence that vigorous chewing both interferes with memory for speech and makes imagining tunes, specifically pitch and melody, more difficult and less vivid.”
Brain scans have shown that when a person is thinking about a tune regions involved in speech production spark along with the expected ones needed to process sound, Beaman says.
For one experiment described in the new study Beaman and his colleagues asked college students to listen to the first 30 seconds of a popular song—“Play Hard”—twice.
Then the students were told to try not to think about the music for three minutes and to hit the “p” on a computer keyboard anytime the bars of the song started ringing in their heads.
In one phase of the experiment the students were told to chew on a stick of gum vigorously during the three minutes; in the other they were not.
Sure enough, when chewing gum, the students hit the “p” key nearly half as often.
In another experiment, students were told to chew gum, tap their fingers on their desks, or do nothing after listening to “Payphone.” This time the gum chewers hit the “p” about a third as often as those who did nothing. The finger tappers hit the key half as often.
“I think chewing anything should work provided you do it vigorously and it provides some resistance and it isn’t anything that just dissolves in your mouth,” Beaman says.
He’s not sure how long the effect will last however. That will take more experiments.
The idea that chewing gum might block the unwanted intrusions of earworms makes a lot of sense, says Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, a professor in the department of music and director of the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas and author of “On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind.”
No one really knows why certain musical phrases get stuck in the brain, Margulis says, adding that, “people who have done surveys on this have found certain songs come up regularly: “Who Let the Dogs Out,” “It’s a Small World,” “Call Me Maybe” … and anything by Taylor Swift.”
Mindless and automatic
The trick is to tie up the brain with something else so it can’t focus on the sticky song, she says.
Earworms are most likely to wriggle deep into our brains if we are doing something mindless and automatic, like walking or riding a bike, a 2013 study found.
Other ways to wipe out earworms:
Busy your brain
A task that is more involved, but not too difficult, will help, since our minds tend to wander when we’re working on tough stuff, says Ira Hyman, the lead author of the 2013 study and a professor of psychology at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.
Talk to a friend
Being engaged in conversation can help occupy your mind and shake it off (Ha! Made you think of a Taylor Swift song again!).
Ultimately, the effectiveness of any of these earworm blocking techniques may be short-lived, Hyman says. “We’ve found that if a song gets started in your head, it is very likely to return over the ensuing 24 hours.”
Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic” and the recently published “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry”