Marilyn woke with a start, her heart pounding. It was the middle of the night. “I thought people were calling to me,” she explained. “I became truly frightened when I realized that I was deaf and should not be able to hear voices.”
“My wife hears music that is not there,” Harry writes. “The first song she heard was Silent Night sung by a very good choir of mostly men. It came in quite loud. A day later it was the Vienna Waltz over and over again so clear it was like being at a musical production.”
“I would often lie half awake in the quietness of the early morning and hear a phantom radio,” Dick recalls. “A guy would be talking like they did in the 50s. Kind of a monotone voice and all the advertisements like they did back then. It always sounded so real.”
“Late at night when I don’t have my hearing aids on,” Carolyn relates, “I am absolutely sure I hear trucks and bulldozers working right outside our bedroom windows. We are the only ones living on our little country lane. There’s no traffic of any kind outside my bedroom windows. My husband swears there are no noises at all.”
“Years ago,” Sherry remembers, “when my dad would take me flying in his little two-seater wind-knocker airplane, I used to hear strange music. The music sounded like the full Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Since I was quite young, I thought it was angels singing.”
Julie’s father-in-law mainly hears loud music when alone in his apartment, oftentimes in the middle of the night. Julie explains, “He has taken to knocking on the downstairs landlady’s door at 3 A.M. telling her to turn the music down. I have been with him a few times when he heard the music, but I couldn’t hear a thing.”
“I was afraid I was going nuts when I thought I was hearing things in my head after my CI surgery,” Heather remembers. “On the morning after the surgery, I was hearing what sounded like music from a radio. I heard that every day from my surgery until I was hooked up. It almost drove me nuts. Yet, I never said one word to anyone about it because I didn’t want them to think I was crazy.”
What do these people have in common? They are all hard of hearing, and they all hear strange phantom voices, ethereal music or other spooky sounds that no one else hears. Nor are they alone. Thousands of other hard of hearing people “hear” similar phantom sounds, yet they never tell a soul because they are afraid of the dreaded “H” word. They are terrified someone will discover their “shameful” secret—that they experience auditory hallucinations.
Janet explained, “My mother-in-law confided in me about hearing music loud and clear at various times of the day, but frequently when she goes to bed. Two doctors now have basically ridiculed her and said they’d never heard of such a thing. My mother-in-law is at the end of her rope. She is even accusing her husband of trying to drive her crazy by playing this music. As you can imagine, this is very difficult on their marriage.”
What do these people have in common? They all hear strange phantom sounds that no one else hears. They are also hard of hearing. Nor are they alone. Thousands of other hard of hearing people “hear” similar phantom sounds, yet they never tell a soul because they are afraid of the dreaded “H” word—hallucinations. The very word conjures up visions of phantom voices, padded cells and people in white coats talking in hushed tones. This is because almost everyone associates “hearing voices” with “going crazy” and mental illness such as schizophrenia. It’s time to dispel such myths.
What Exactly Are Hallucinations?According to Stedman’s MedicalDictionary, hallucinations are “the apparent, often strong,subjective perception of an object or event when no such stimulus or situation is present.” More simply put,hallucinations are where your brain perceives that something is happening even though your five senses have not received any direct stimulus.
Hallucinations may be visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smelling), gustatory (tasting) or tactile (feeling). Therefore, hallucinations are simply seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or feeling sights, sounds, odors, tastes, or sensations that no one else around you perceives.
Although hallucinations may occur with any of the five senses, auditory hallucinations are by far the most common kind of hallucination. A person is hearing auditory hallucinations when he or she hear noises, music, sounds or voices that no one else hears because these phantom sounds are generated in the person’s brain, not externally.
Two Kinds of Auditory HallucinationsNot many people know this, but there are actually two classes of auditory hallucinations—psychiatric auditory hallucinations, and non-psychiatric auditory hallucinations. People with mental illnesses often experience the former,while hard of hearing people often experience the latter.
Here is an example of a psychiatric auditory hallucination. Elyssa explained, “Lately I’ve been hearing voices. I don’t know where they come from but they are loud and clear. Last week, for example, I was sitting in class when this voice told me that the boy sitting behind me was planning to attack me after school. I jumped out of my seat and began to scream obscenities at him. He denied everything, of course, so I punched him in the face and broke his nose.”
As you can readily see, this example is vastly different from the auditory hallucination stories mentioned at the beginning of this article—the kind many hard of hearing people typically experience. These non-psychiatric auditory hallucinations have nothing whatsoever to do withmental illness, but are a symptom of something not working quite right in the auditory circuits in our brains.
If you are hearing phantom sounds, how can you tell which of hallucinations you are experiencing—whether psychiatric or non-psychiatric? Although I am not a psychiatrist, here are two “rules of thumb”.
1. People who experience psychiatric auditory hallucinations generally hear voices, as opposed to music or other sounds. People who experience non-psychiatric auditory hallucinations mostly hear music or singing, rather than just plain voices.
2. The voices that people who experience psychiatric auditory hallucinations hear are generally clear and distinct. These voices almost always talk to or about the person, and may engage the person in conversation. Consequently, the content is of a meaningful personal nature.
In contrast, people who experience non-psychiatric auditory hallucinations often hear voices that sound vaguely like a radio broadcast or TV program playing in another room. For example, Robert explained, “I get Red Barber calling the game. I can’t distinguish the words—but I’m sure that’s who is talking.” Catherine described her auditory hallucinations as “what sounded like the voice of a radio announcer on a badly tuned radio station”.
These phantom sounds do not contain any information of a meaningful personal nature. These voices neither talk to the person, or about them, nor do they engage them in conversation.
Characteristics of Auditory HallucinationsNon-psychiatric auditory hallucinations (hereinafter referred to simply as “auditory hallucinations”) comprise a wide range of sounds, ranging from simple to complex. Simple sounds are single, unmodulated sounds such as the various tinnitus sounds (ringing, roaring, buzzing, hissing, rumbling, etc.) millions of people hear. In fact, tinnitus is the most common kind of auditory hallucination.
In contrast, complex sounds include multiple, modulated sounds such as tunes, singing, music and voices. These are the kinds of sounds that people have traditionally considered auditory hallucinations. Many people have mistakenly called these sounds “musical tinnitus.”
Depending on their clarity, phantom sounds may be either “unformed” or “formed.” Unformed auditory hallucinations consist of hearing distorted music, sounds, or voices. These sounds are vague, “fuzzy” and indistinct. For example, Jane described her unformed auditory hallucinations as “like the wind blowing, but with a musical quality, as if someone off in the distance was singing without words.” Rachel explains, “The words are never distinct—it’s like they are several rooms away.” Sarah relates, “I sometimes hear phantom “radio broadcasts” that I can’t quite make out.”
In contrast, formed auditory hallucinations are where speech, music or singing is so clear and recognizable that people hearing it can identify the various voices and musical instruments. For example, James explains, “For the past 3 to 4 months I have had the most calming and repetitive choruses and wind ensembles, usually led by a bass sax and a baritone playing and singing in a low octave, the older Christian hymns and a few oldies from the forties such as, Near the Cross, Amazing Grace, His Eye Is on the Sparrow and The Star Spangled Banner.”
Claudia, who has normal hearing, describing her auditory hallucinations, says, “I hear passages of what sound like Strauss waltzes, Russian symphonies, Italian operas—distinctively enough to identify various instruments, male or female choruses, and the occasional soloist.”
Incidentally, many people find their auditory hallucinations begin with clearly-formed complete sentences or songs. Later, the repetition of lengthy passages of music may degenerate into short snatches of repetitive phrases or rhythmic patterns, or even into unformed auditory hallucinations that are more like the common forms of tinnitus. Tyler’s father’s auditory hallucinations followed this pattern. He explained, “My dad’s musical hallucinations started out as recognizable songs (Battle Hymn of the Republic for 2 weeks, then started changing to a variety of other songs, The Music Man, Ride of the Valkyries, etc.) then turned into unrecognizable orchestral or vocal-like sounds”.
The Need for a New Name—The Fear FactorUnfortunately, the general public immediately associates all auditory hallucinations with mental illness. For example, if I say I hear non-psychiatric auditory hallucinations, typically you will zero in on the two words “psychiatric” and “hallucinations”—and immediately think I am crazy.
As a result, few people have the courage to admit they are hearing non-psychiatric auditory hallucinations for this very reason. For example, Cheryl explained, “I was afraid I was going nuts. I never said one word to anyone about the strange music I was hearing because I didn’t want them to think I was crazy”.
Sharing with family members often elicits a similar response. Anna declared, “All my family believe I am nuts because I told them I hear music every waking moment”.
Because of this fear factor, many people describe their auditory hallucinations in terms such as “musical tinnitus” to avoid using the word “hallucinations”. You see, we don’t typically think people with tinnitus as hallucinating or being nuts, do we?
Obviously, there is a real need for a new term to describe non-psychiatric auditory hallucinations—a name that has no negative connotations associated with it whatsoever, and one that does not include either the words “psychiatric” or “hallucinations”.
Since the vast majority of people who experience auditory hallucinations hear some sort of phantom music or singing, I named this condition Musical Ear Syndrome. Not only does it not have any negative connotations, it almost sounds like it might be something good to have—like having an ear for music or having perfect pitch.
For example, when I say, “I’ve got Musical Ear Syndrome,” the first thing that comes to your mind is not that I’m crazy. You see, there is no stigma attached to the term to start with. You are left feeling neutral, or even slightly positive, towards this term, or you query with an open mind, “Music Ear Syndrome—what’s that?”
Since I coined the term Musical Ear Syndrome or MES for short back in 2004, I have found that people are far more willing to openly talk about the phantom sounds they “hear”. In fact, the last time I did a search on Google for the phrase “Musical Ear Syndrome” (in quotes) I came up with more than 11,700 websites that now use this term!
Musical Ear Syndrome is Not NewMusical Ear Syndrome has been around for a long time. Only the name is new—not the phantom experiences themselves. For example, composer Robert Schumann heard auditory hallucinations towards the end of his life. At night, he heard musical notes and believed that he heard an angelic choir singing to him. He also heard the music of Beethoven and Schubert. He jotted down the music in February, 1854 and called it the Theme (WoO, 1854). He said he was taking dictation from Schubert’s ghost.
Definition of Musical Ear SyndromeI define Musical Ear Syndrome as hearing non-tinnitus phantom sounds (that is, auditory hallucinations) of a non-psychiatric nature, often musical, but also including voices and other strange sounds.
Tinnitus vs. Musical Ear Syndrome SoundsOnce we throw out psychiatric auditory hallucinations, we are still left with two basic kinds of phantoms sounds—tinnitus and Musical Ear Syndrome sounds. Here’s how to tell them apart.
Tinnitus sounds are single, simple (unmodulated) sounds such as ringing, buzzing, hissing, roaring, clicking, humming, rushing, whooshing droning and kindred sounds. In contrast, Musical Ear Syndrome sounds include multiple, complex (modulated) sounds such as singing, music and voices.
The Most Common Musical Ear Syndrome SoundsDid you ever wonder what are the most common kinds of MES songs people hear? The truth is that hymns, Christmas carols and patriotic music comprise just over half of all the MES sounds people hear (52% combined).
One lady related, “My 66 year old mom lost almost all her hearing two months ago. The last three days [this was written on December 28th] she keeps hearing Silent Night and Oh, Come All Ye Faithful over and over again. It gets so loud that she can’t sleep. She has tried to make it go away but can’t. She says that it is just beautiful singing with a full orchestra to boot, but would really like some sleep”.
As a matter of interest, quite often MES sounds have a seasonal quality—thus people “hear” Christmas carols during the winter season and The Star Spangled Banner around the 4th of July. Incidentally, while Americans often hear The Star Spangled Banner, Canadians typically hear God Save the Queen or Oh Canada, and Australians often hear Waltzing Matilda!
How Common Is Musical Ear Syndrome?Because so few people admit to hearing phantom sounds, researchers, up to now, have considered Musical Ear Syndrome (under whatever name they call it) very rare. But that is just not true. Musical Ear Syndrome is much more common than anyone seems to realize, and affects significant numbers of hard of hearing people.
Since few people are willing to admit to hearing these phantom sounds, it is difficult to obtain accurate figures. I estimate that well in excess of 10% of hard of hearing people experience these phantom sounds at one time or another.
For example, when I speak to groups of hard of hearing people on this subject, I often ask how many of them have heard such phantom sounds. Since they feel “safe” with me, invariably 10% to 30% of the people present are brave enough to put up their hands. And that is just those willing to publicly admit they have heard such phantom sounds. Others won’t even admit that much.
To date, I have collected the stories from more than 1,500 people regarding their MES experiences. This alone tells you how common MES really is.
Causes of Musical Ear SyndromeThere are a number of things that are thought to cause MES. The primary contender is lack of adequate auditory stimulation. The theory is that when your world becomes too quiet, your brain manufactures its own sounds. This is why MES is so common among elderly, hard of hearing people. First, they often have significant hearing losses. Second, they typically live in quiet environments. Third, they generally live alone after the death of a spouse.
In addition, because of their hearing losses, hard of hearing people tend to withdraw from social situations and thus do not have much social interaction. This just further compounds their world of silence. At the same time, hard of hearing people may feel depressed over their hearing losses and anxious about what is happening to them. This just exacerbates their phantom sounds.
Another cause of auditory hallucinations is drugs and medications. Elderly people tend to take more and more medications as they age. Unfortunately, numerous drugs can cause auditory hallucinations.
In rare cases, brain abnormalities (tumors, infections) can cause auditory hallucinations. Have a neurologist check you out-especially if you do not fit the common profile of being elderly, hard of hearing and living in a quiet environment.
Some Characteristics of People with Musical Ear SyndromeNot everyone hears phantom sounds. Following are some of the characteristics common to many of the people who do experience Musical Ear Syndrome.
1. Often the Person Is Older. About two-thirds of the people with MES are older than 50. About one-third are older than 70. Only about one-third of the people experiencing MES are younger than 50.
2. Generally the Person Has Some Degree of Hearing Loss. Since MES is apparently often caused by lack of auditory stimulation, it stands to reason that many people with MES have some degree of hearing loss. Surprisingly, about a third of the people with MES report normal hearing. Just over half of the people experiencing MES, report either mild or moderate hearing losses. Interestingly enough, people with more severe hearing losses don’t appear to have MES more frequently than their numbers warrant.
3. More Commonly Reported in Women than in Men. For some reason, typically three times as many women as men report hearing MES sounds. This does not necessarily mean that more women than men experience Musical Ear Syndrome (although it is quite likely that they do). It may just mean that more women than men are willing to speak up and seek help.
4. Commonly the Person is Anxious/Worried, Stressed or Depressed. Notice how anxiety, worry and stress play an important role in the occurrence of Musical Ear Syndrome. It seems that often people going through anxious experiences and stressful situations such as the death of a spouse or some sickness or problems in their family experience MES much more commonly than people whose lives are moving along smoothly.The same is true for depression. One out of five people experiencing MES admits to being depressed when their MES started.
5. More Often than Not, the Person Also Has Tinnitus. Before their Musical Ear Syndrome appeared, most people had pre-existing tinnitus. This is particularly true of those that are hard of hearing. It is probably not true for those whose MES is caused by background sounds. Such people typically have normal, or near-normal, hearing.
6. Often the MES Sounds Seem to Come from a Certain Direction. When the phantom sounds you hear appear to have directionality—that is, they appear to come from a definite direction, thus acting like real sounds—it is most difficult to believe that those sounds are truly phantom. More than one third of the people experiencing MES report that their MES sounds have directionality.
7. Generally Become Aware Their Sounds Are Phantom. Fortunately, most people who experience MES, as time passes, typically figure out that these sounds are not real. For example, one elderly lady who “knew” she was hearing a radio station realized that radio stations don’t play the same song over and over and over again endlessly. So, if the music she is hearing repeats endlessly, she knows it’s all in her head.
A man who heard phantom sounds while in bed had a different way of determining whether what he was hearing was real or phantom. He simply put the pillow over his ears. If he could still hear the sound just as loud, he knew it was in his head. However, if the pillow cut out the sound, he knew it was real. That worked for him.
Unfortunately, about one in five or one in six of the people experiencing MES cannot tell that the sounds they are hearing are truly phantom. These people are typically well up in their 80s. Even when caregivers explain to them that these sounds are not real, they refuse to believe it, and often become angry at the person who’s trying to tell them otherwise. In my experience, it is almost impossible to help such people. The best I can do is to explain clearly to their children or caregivers what is happening so that they can understand what their parent is going through.
8. May Appear to Act Irrationally. The good news is that most people soon come to realize the MES sounds they are hearing are phantom and thus don’t respond to them as though they are real. However, numbers of people, especially those up in their 80s and 90s, don’t seem to be able to separate their phantom sounds from real sounds. As a result, they continue to act as though what they are hearing is real. This gives rise to some bizarre, and often what appears to be irrational behavior. Don’t let that throw you. Although people with MES may have what appears to be bizarre behavior, if you put yourself in their shoes, you’ll quickly realize that they are behaving sanely and rationally based on what their senses are telling them is true, even though the sounds they are “hearing” are indeed phantom.
Unfortunately, because of their apparently irrational behavior, too often, doctors and caregivers (which includes family members) have quickly written such people off as being “nuts” and treat them as such, when in reality, they are simply being fooled by their MES. Here are some examples.
An 82 year old hard of hearing widow began hearing noises on the second floor of her house. To her it sounded like a homeless person was living there. She heard him come into the house, usually at night, walk up the stairs and move things around upstairs. She never saw him, or spoke to him.
A few times she even summoned the courage to climb the stairs and see what was going on. She never found anything out of place, and there was never any signs of the stranger.
To try to stop this, she changed the locks on her house, not just once, but twice. Also, on two occasions, she called the police. The police thoroughly searched the house and grounds without finding any evidence of an intruder. You see, in this case she heard certain sounds and made a rational decision based on their being real. These sounds had moving directionality—walking up the stairs, moving around upstairs, etc. Thus she acted prudently (as far as she was concerned) in changing the locks and calling the police, but to outsiders, her actions seemed a bit nuts.
Here’s another example. A concerned neighbor explained, “We have a neighbor in our condo who has been fairly deaf for many years. He is about 80 now. In recent years, he is hearing music, which he attributes to neighbors next door, who he feels are “against him” and play music all night. No one else in the condo has ever heard such music. It is quite quiet here at night. He has enlisted the help of paralegals and others, demanding that the “music” stop. Our condo board is beside itself, as his threats become more aggressive. He is making everyone’s life miserable.”
This man also hears “real” music and “knows” exactly where it is coming from—that neighbor next door. So he does the rational thing and tries to get the Condo board to stop it, and when they don’t, he enlists the help of a paralegal. To everyone else, he is acting irrational, but, because this music is so real, has directionality, and the people won’t stop being inconsiderate, he is taking legal action.
In these above stories you now can see that what appears at first glance to be irrational thinking and behavior is rooted in the firm belief that these phantom sounds are real. Unless, or until, a person realizes that their brains are playing tricks on them, they will continue on in their apparently bizarre behavior.
And while we are on this subject, you’ve all heard stories of people who supposedly hear radio stations through their dental fillings, haven’t you? These stories have been around for a long time now. I remember my dad telling me such stories more than 50 years ago.
In spite of the many reports of radio broadcasts being received through dental fillings, I’m not aware of a single proven case. I now know that what people thought were their fillings picking up radio stations is in reality Musical Ear Syndrome. Tooth fillings don’t receive radio signals. People came up with this explanation in their desperate search for a rational explanation for the strange phantom radio-like sounds they were “hearing”—so they wouldn’t have to admit they were crazy.
Three Reasons Why MES Sounds Make You Believe They Are RealHere are three reasons why Musical Ear Syndrome can completely trick people into believing that the phantom sounds they hear are real.
1. The sounds can seem absolutely real. As far as you are concerned, you are hearing them with your ears—so no way could they be phantom sounds. Therefore, you treat them as real sounds until, hopefully, you realize your brain is fooling you (yet again).
2. Often the sounds have directionality. They are not just “in your head”, but you “know” they are coming from a certain location—the house next door, the apartment below you (or above you), etc. Therefore, you have no reason to believe they are not real sounds.
3. These sounds are sometimes accompanied by tactile sensations. Some people actually feel the appropriate tactile sensation that would accompany the real sound. For example, you might also “feel” the floor vibrating from all the racket downstairs. Here are a couple of stories of a person not only hearing sounds, but also feeling them too.
Carolyn explained, “Late at night when I don’t have my hearing aids on, I am absolutely sure that there are trucks and bulldozers working just outside my bedroom window late at night when it is quiet. We are the only ones living on our little country lane. There’s no traffic of any kind outside my bedroom windows. I feel the vibrations too. I thought I was going off the deep end.”
Since our minds associate certain sensations with certain sounds, it automatically adds them in—thus heightening the illusion that there is something real going on when nothing is happening. In Carolyn’s case, you can’t have a bulldozer working right outside your house without it rumbling and shaking the ground as it works—so she both “hears” it and “feels” the house shaking.
Sometimes our minds make up totally illogical explanations to try to fit what we hear and feel into our reality.
Angela related, “My 90 year old father-in-law has been hard of hearing for some time, and it is getting progressively worse. The geriatric psychiatrist tested him and found no dementia. He mainly hears loud music when alone in his apartment, oftentimes in the middle of the night. He thinks the landlady knows exactly when he lays down to sleep, and that is when she turns the music all the way up.
Unfortunately, he has taken to knocking on the downstairs landlady’s door (at 3 A.M.) telling her to turn the music down. We have been with him a few times when he heard the music—none of us heard anything. Now get this, he also believes she has a vibrating device or machine that makes his floor vibrate.”
Feeling the floor vibrate when you hear phantom sounds coming from below you is not as strange as you might think. Several people have told me they experience vibrations along with their MES. When two of your five senses begin telling you the same thing, it’s very difficult to believe these sensations are all phantom.
Six Common Triggers of Musical Ear SyndromeExactly what causes MES is still a mystery, but there are a number of things that seem to trigger MES.
1. Anxiety/Stress/Worry. People that are anxious or stressed are much more likely to experience MES than those who are calm and laid-back.
2. Depression. As is the case with tinnitus, Musical Ear Syndrome is more common in people with depression. Treating their depression can cause the phantom sounds to fade away on their own.
3. Constant Background Noise. Sometimes, constant background noise blends in and begins to take on a musical quality. This can happen whether you have a hearing loss or not. I think this is one of the common triggers of MES in people with normal hearing.
Bethany explained, “My mom is hard of hearing. Recently on a trip to Arizona with my dad she commented to dad when they arrived at their hotel that she really enjoyed the music on the plane. Dad said there was no music on the plane. On the return trip, mom started hearing the music again and told dad to listen. He said, nope, no music. But mom continued to enjoy it until the plane landed.”
I’ve determined that one common theme with hearing people is that many times their MES sounds are triggered by a fan in the house. For example, a man with normal hearing explained, “I hear music only when a noise is going on in my environment. For example, if I’m hearing the air conditioner outside the window or the furnace fan, I hear an orchestra, or sometimes just a song. When the triggering noise turns off, the music stops.”
A hearing woman explained, “I only hear MES sounds when the furnace fan is running and I am in bed and the house is quiet. They go when the furnace or air conditioning fan quits running”.
4. Brain Abnormalities.Auditory hallucinations can result from seizures such as temporal lobe epilepsy. Musical hallucinations may be triggered by unruptured intracranial aneurysms, or may be associated with dorsal pontine lesions. They may also be triggered by pockets of infection in your brain such as is caused by Lyme disease.
5. Drugs. Most people know that some “recreational” drugs such as Alcohol, Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), Marijuana (Pot), Methamphetamines (Meth) and other recreational drugs can cause auditory hallucinations, but it never crosses the minds of most people that some of the prescription drugs they are taking can also cause such phantom sounds. Furthermore, elderly people tend to take more and more medications as they age. Unfortunately, numerous drugs can cause auditory hallucinations.
Gail explained, “My father has a profound hearing loss that may be getting worse. He was recently placed on Terazosin. Since starting the medication he hears “music” even when his hearing aids are out.”
Note: Terazosin (and more than 360 other drugs and substances that can cause hallucinations) are listed in Appendix 2 in the back of my book Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds.
6. Hearing Loss.Hearing loss is a very commonly associated with Musical Ear Syndrome. This is because with increasing hearing loss, the brain no longer hears what it used to hear, and it sometimes decides to make up for this lack with music of its own. Doctors call this sensory deprivation.
Eight Steps to Work Through When Helping People with Musical Ear SyndromeNow comes the important part—what can you do about your Musical Ear Syndrome?Very briefly, here are a number of things you can do to help yourself manage your auditory hallucinations so they have less of an impact on your life.
1. Seek Competent Medical Attention to Rule Out Brain Disorders & Other Medical Conditions. There is a very small chance that you may have a brain tumor or other brain abnormality that is causing your Musical Ear Syndrome. It is good to be checked out by a neurologist to be sure there are no physical brain problems. You may decide to have MRIs, CT scans or EEGs. Knowing there is nothing physically wrong “upstairs” will give you a large sense of relief.
2. Learn About Musical Ear Syndrome. Learning all you can about what you are dealing with takes much of the anxiety away. Thus, you are better able to cope with your MES. Furthermore, once you know what MES is, you often will feel an enormous sense of relief. With that sense of relief, often a surprising thing happens. Your Musical Ear Syndrome goes away on its own, or tends to fade more into the background. Many times this is all it takes.
3. Convince Your Brain of the Falseness of Your Musical Ear Syndrome Sounds. When you know your brain is playing tricks on you, do whatever it takes to convince your brain—and you can put an end to some of these phantom sounds.
Remember the man that heard music at night—he put the pillow over his ears. If the sound volume dropped, he knew it was real music. If it stayed at the same volume, he knew it was all in his head.
4. Reduce Your Anxiety Level. Very often, just learning about Musical Ear Syndrome is enough to reduce your anxiety over the strange sounds you are hearing. That is why it is so important to have good information available like this article. If you are anxious about other things, get your anxiety under control and your MES may also fade away. The same is true for depression.
5. Rule Out Drugs. If your MES began soon after you began taking a new drug or after you changed the dose on an existing drug, that may be the cause. Changing to a different drug or reducing the dose to its original level may let your MES fade away.
6. Enrich Your Environment with Real Sounds. Musical Ear Syndrome thrives when your brain doesn’t get adequate auditory stimulation. This often happens if you have a hearing loss and consequently don’t hear the common everyday environmental sounds that keep your auditory neurons happy.
Since hearing loss and aging often go hand in hand, this is why MES is so common among elderly, hard of hearing people. In addition, often elderly people live in quiet environments, and may live alone after the death of a spouse, thus exacerbating the lack of auditory stimulation.
Therefore, if you have Musical Ear Syndrome, surround yourself with real sounds. Give your brain real sounds to listen to all the time. If you are hard of hearing, wear your hearing aids so you can hear something—then your brain can focus on those real sounds and quit producing its own phantom sounds.
7. Become Socially Active. Because of their hearing losses, hard of hearing people tend to withdraw from social situations and thus do not have much social interaction. This just further compounds their world of silence.
Becoming socially active does a number of things. First, it goes a long ways towards keeping your mind from focusing on your phantom music. Second, your brain now has scintillating conversations to focus on. Third, increased socialization helps lift the depression and sense of isolation you may be feeling that so often makes your Musical Ear Syndrome worse.
8. Discover What Works for You. Note anything you do that makes your phantom music fade away, or at least not be so noticeable and intrusive. One man told how, when his MES made it hard to go to sleep, he practiced breathing deeply and rhythmically and focused his mind on the sound of his breathing as he lay in bed. He explained that for him, “With a bit of practice my brain seems to place less emphasis on the music which becomes more in the background and it becomes easier for me to fall asleep.” You may find other little tricks that work for you.
There you have it. This has been a brief overview of Musical Ear Syndrome, several causes and a number of ways to help overcome it. However, if you are hard of hearing and have Musical Ear Syndrome, look on the bright side. Hearing phantom music isn’t always all bad. As Sheila says, “I shall miss it if it ever fades away.” I mean, where else can you hear beautiful music without wearing hearing aids, assistive devices, iPods, headphones or other paraphernalia?
(An abbreviated version of this article titled Musical Ear Syndrome was published in the Winter 2004 edition of Hearing Health magazine, pp 16-19.)