A 2016 study found pop songs and some classic rock standards often are big culprits when it comes to getting a song stuck in your head. British researchers found instances of Involuntary Musical Imagery — aka earworms — are produced from songs with easy-to-remember melodies, fast tempos and repetition among other characteristics. The study found three of the most common earworm-inducing songs were by Lady Gaga, but Katy Perry, Queen, KylIe Minogue and yes, Journey, also made the list.
However, Philip Beaman, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Reading, said earworms happen on an individual basis - "What gets stuck in one person's head may not stick in another's." Often, they are songs we know well, are easily learned and ones we've heard recently. For instance, he said, Christmas songs pop into our brains more in December than in the summer.
Beaman and Kelly Jakubowski, the lead author of the 2016 study, have offered some methods for ridding yourself of earworms:
Chew some gum
A simple way to stop that bug in your ear is to chew gum. Beaman, in a 2014 study, found gum chewing reduced the number of involuntary musical thoughts and affects the music hearing experience. The study was inspired by other research, which showed chewing gum interfered with a person's ability to recall words from their short-term memory and made it more difficult to imagine music and sounds.
"I had an idea that earworms are essentially the re-appearance of musical memories in short-term memory," he said, "and if that is true then chewing gum should interfere with this process."
Listen to the song
Jakubowski said some people are able to "get out of the loop" by listening to the song and achieving "closure." "Since it is the repetitive looping of the music that people can often find the most bothersome aspect of earworms," she said, "playing a song either mentally or aloud all the way to the end can help alleviate this annoying feature." Listen to another song, chat or listen to talk radio.
Having a conversation, listening to talk radio or listening
Starting a conversation, listening to talk radio or simply listening to another song can help distract people from their earworms. The reason behind this method is similar to Beaman's gum chewing scenario. Listening to other music or talk, Jakubowski said, uses similar brain resources as the earworm.
"It is very difficult for an earworm to persist if the mind is also engaging with other musical or verbal material," she said.
Do a puzzle
Beaman said doing a puzzle, such as sudoku, may help, "provided the puzzle isn't either so easy or so hard that you find your mind wandering away from it."
Let it go — but don't try
The "fade away" method means letting the song dissipate from your brain without actually fighting it. It's a method borrowed from other brain science that suggests trying to suppress thoughts can bring on more of the thoughts.
"The earworm phenomenon might be similar in that attempts to actively displace earworms may sometimes backfire and actually increase the length of the episodes," she said.