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The Ghost in Our Ears: Hearing Loss and Musical Hallucinations

audicus-hearing-loss-musical-hallucinations

Christmas carols in an otherwise silent world?  Moonlight Sonata ringing through deaf ears?  If you have experienced such musical hallucinations, you are not alone.  In fact, it is not uncommon for those who are hard of hearing, or deaf, to experience a condition known as “Musical Ear Syndrome.”

Hearing Loss: Learning the Notes

Musical Ear Syndrome (MES), a term first coined in 2004 by Neil G. Bauman, Ph.D. refers to a condition in which those with hearing loss experience musical auditory hallucinations.  According to Bauman, auditory hallucinations can range from simple sounds such as “ringing, roaring, buzzing, hissing, etc.,” to complex sounds, such as music, singing and “voices that sound vaguely like a radio broadcast playing in another room.” Those with MES tend to experience hearing sounds in the complex range.  According to Bauman, the most commonly conjured tunes heard by more than half of people who experience MES are Christmas carols and patriotic music.

Hearing Loss and Musical Ear Syndrome: A Friendly Auditory Hallucination

Despite the term auditory hallucination, it is necessary to understand that having MES does not make you crazy.  According to Bauman, the hallucinations associated with MES are purely non-psychiatric, meaning they are not associated with mental illness. In fact, there exists a wide range of auditory hallucinations, such as those associated with tinnitus, a common condition of persistent ringing in the ears. According to the Mayo Clinic, approximately 1 in every 5 people experience this.  Like MES, the hallucinations experienced with tinnitus are non-psychiatric.

Hearing Loss: Not a Solo

If you experience such hallucinations, you are not alone.  Professor Oliver Sacks of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York explains in his journal article, “The Power of Music,” “Musical hallucinations are surprisingly common, affecting at least 2% of those who are losing their hearing.”  Interestingly enough, phantom sounds are becoming increasingly common in youth. An article by Professor Jess Dancer of the University of Arkansas explains that cell-phone users whose cell phones are integral aspects of their emotional and social lives experience phantom vibrations or ring tones.

Hearing Loss: The Science of the Symphonies

MES is most common in individuals who experience bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.  Sensorineural loss, which can be unilateral (in one ear) or bilateral (in both ears) is caused by damage to the nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain, also known as the cochlea.  Studies suggest that sudden bilateral loss of inner ear function releases neuronal groups that store auditory memory.  As a result, the lack of inhibition can result in the release of the “stored musical sensations,” despite a lack of external stimulus.  These sensations are the memories of tunes and voices, which are the complex sounds associated with MES.  The vibrations of nearby air conditioners or refrigerators can also stimulate these sensations.  Further conditions that can predispose people to MES include:

– Aging

– Tinnitus

– Living alone

–  Stress, depression and anxiety

Hearing Loss: Tuning Out

If you’ve had enough of the music, there are a variety of methods offered to decrease the musical hallucinations of MES, such as hearing aids and anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications.

While there is no staunch cure for MES, studies continue to research the intriguing condition.  For more information on hearing loss and hearing aid options, refer to the Guide to Hearing on Audicus.

Sources:

Audicus Hearing Aids, Mayo Clinic, About.com Deafness, Center for Hearing Loss Help, Advance for Nurses, Informa Healthcare, Tinnitus Formula, “The Power of Music,” Science Daily, Wikipedia

Photo: http://p6.hostingprod.com

by Brad Miller

47 responses to “The Ghost in Our Ears: Hearing Loss and Musical Hallucinations

  1. I have experienced MES for the past few months. I have been musically involved all my life (singing, piano, classical and folk guitar, choirs, choruses). I have a severe bilateral sensory neural loss starting in my 40’s and I am now 75. It started in a YMCA workout room with loud music. It is constant when I’m awake and probably continues when I’m sleeping. The thing I haven’t found in my reading so far is anyone with the ability to change the music to a different song. The notes just follow simultaneously the notes I am singing or thinking. Sometimes it’s very annoying and at other times it’s kind of fun. I’ve learned the words to a lot more songs so I can sing along or follow along in my mind.

    1. Hi. I just found this site and am so relieved to know that I am not crazy. Also have musical background, and used to have always a song in my head! Now, because of labarynthistis, and loss of hearing, I have songs. When I get tired of one, I just say to myself, “have to change this song!” I think of another song, and “start” it in my head. It changes immediately . However, I usually get back to the original song some other time when I am not paying attention to it. I am 72, female, and I don’t mind the music, since I don’t hear anything else! Soon I will get a BAHA hearing aid, and then, according to the article, my music will stopl I think I will miss it!

  2. I have been hearing whole symphony orchestras playing the British National Anthem and the U.S. Anthem sometimes I will hear a Welsh chorus………..This morning I was hearing William Tell Overture.
    I can tune out when I am reading, there maybe a faint echo of the music in the background but reading seems to block it pretty well

  3. I call it the radio in my head, and have so since I was a teenager, I am now late 30’s. It is rare for me to hear music or songs or lyrics that I have heard from external sources. I found over the years how to focus in on my radio and create a song of my feelings at the time or about a theme. I find taking the emotion for tone and music riffs and tempo and using raw melodic words sometimes rhyming other’s depending on the song I create and what I want it to convey. I find myself humming tunes unaware or singing songs wherever I feel like it, writing lyrics into poetry which works wonderfully in relationships. But this is something I have had for a long long time. It never stops I can turn it down but it is still there I can always hear my radio no matter where I am or what I am doing often I even dream music and songs. However I hate it when I hear or sing lyrics that are just awful to me. ha ha. After so many years I guess I hate losing control and have to really focus on changing tempo or instruments, this is extremely hard to do like a deep mediation and takes a lot of concentration and focus, it is like bringing the unconscious to full conscious and making surrounding reality into the unconscious. I also manage to have rhyming conversations which sometimes drive my friends and family nuts, they ask why are you rhyming everything, talk normally I find I just can’t help it.

  4. I have been hearing impaired since I was 6 1/2 moths old and always had very strange experiences with hearing issues. It ranges from hearing music of various kinds, ringing, buzzing and someone calling my name loudly when my alarm does not go off. I do feel this is the body’s way of compensating for the hearing loss and reminding someone to pay attention. I don’t like the idea of being put on anti-depressant/anxiety drugs. Their side effects will create more problems and learning to cope with it is much healthier.

  5. Chris, I have been hearing music for the last two yrs. I am a 73 yr. old women. You wondered if there was anyone who has MES who has the ability to change the song., thankfully I do have that ability. I can change the song in an instant. Sometimes, all I have to do is see something and it conjures a song related to it, ie, one day while shopping I saw some cherries, and to my surprise the song “Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries” began playing! The music I hear, is music I enjoy, words complete to the extent of my knowing them. Sometime, the music is all instrumental, this seems to happen when I am reading, or being distracted by something . It is very beautiful music, both men and women’s voices at times. Sometimes it’s just men singing or just women, but always very beautiful either way. However, at times I just wish it would stop, but it never does, I don’t hear it when I’m asleep, but as soon as I open my eyes there it is! Very strange, but something I have to learn to live with.

    1. i hear music songs and noises i lost my hearing 2 yers ago im 44 i can hear everything else just not the tv or people talking my doctors havent diagnoised me i havent spoke to them since i found thhis article im so depressed wiv it i dont want to live like this anymore im so isolated

  6. I have some hearing loss and tinnitus in my left ear due to a scuba diving accident about six years ago. However only these past seven months I’ve started experiencing MES. I thought I was going crazy. However, after doing some research I recognized he triggers associated with MES. For example I have been in Afghanistan for a year now and the job got stressful. Plus, there is constant noise 24/7 due to the military vehicles.

  7. My mother now 82 has had this for three years after having back surgery. She had a bad reaction to the meds they used during surgery and had hallucinations in recovery. Shortly after that the MES started. She is also hard of hearing in one ear but was fine prior to the surgery. I think certain meds can bring this on as well from what I’ve been reading. 368 medications and other substances that can cause hallucinations, including Zyrtec and Claritin. Hearing health.org.

  8. I am taking antibiotics for it. I have been taking them for 3 days and it is better but I still hear music and cannot shut it off. I am 85 and I have had it for about 3 months.

  9. This identifies my own experience that parallels, including timeline, that of Chris Voorhees experience. The redundancy of some music can be annoying but it does pass. The early sensory loss began as bilateral tinnitus. Now 77.

  10. To Chris Vorhees,
    Regarding your lack of information on someone changing the music they are hearing:
    I like you have been hearing this music for the past month. I even complained to my neighbor, believing it was them. Well, I noticed today that I am able to change the song at any time. Geez. I really thought I was losing it as I heard it and my neighbor came over and didn’t hear anything.
    I am on Quetiapine (Seroquel) for my inability to fall asleep. This I cannot tolerate. Maybe this suppose to put me to sleep? Thank God it is not heavy rock playing in my ears! Most of the music I hear are church songs, Christmas songs and the real goodie: “God Bless America”. Most of the time, the music is low but I can tell what song is playing. I hope you can be cured of this, as well as, anybody else experiencing it.

  11. I Disagree on the source of this musical phenomenon, of
    The hearing impaired. I am
    Hearing impaired bilaterally
    And and wore hearing aids for
    10 years, then the left ear became worse and opted for a Cohclear implant. The MES
    Began the day of the surgery
    Which left me totally deaf in
    The left Ear. I had a lot of tinnitus in that ear when I left
    The Surgical Center. However
    Inside of all this noise was clear solid tone that cut thru the maize. Then when laid down for the nite as I lay quit
    Clearing my mind The solid
    Sound began to have rhythm
    To it the I meditated upon humming revealed itself then
    Musical instrument could be
    Heard in the background. This
    Progressed over a month before the devise was activated. Using that time I
    Heard @ least 1 dozen Hymns;
    A song intirely in French which I never studied. However when a sang it to my
    Spouse she translated it for me. Two other songs that I would call amusing . 1 that
    Helped me to have a greater
    Appreciation for my spouse;
    Plus O say can you see & also
    The Marine Hymn. I am not
    A Vet or a Marine. I have a
    Feeling that many of May be
    Hearing through a spiritual
    Ear which penetrates the Vale;
    And not an hallucination. Once the Cohclear implant
    Was turned on it ereased the
    Tinnitas but not the music which I appreciate very much
    I don’t think God wanted to
    Live in a Vaccume for the rest
    Of deaf lives!
    Dr. Richard D. Weber,PhD,MDh

  12. Unfortunately for the many
    Also I filled all the fields asked
    For. If I missed some allow me
    To correct the required info!
    Dr RDW

  13. I have tinnitus and musical ear/head. I was in hit by a car 5 years ago with mild head injury most of my injuries are in my legs. I have metal implants in my pelvic area (front and back) and both legs have implants as well.
    I am wondering if the metal implants could be a contributing factor with the music in my ears. The music is repetitive and very irritating. Not sure what to do to stop it.

    1. I have this same issue, always had functional tinnitus up in till a few weeks ago when the tinnitus spiked and on came the music… Unfortunately it drives me crazy, to the point of the hospital and needing drugs 🙁 Hoping an implant can help as im totally deaf in that ear !!!! I feel your pain !!!

      1. im totally deaf but only to the tv and voices i hear music and noices it drives me insane i dont know whats caused mine i used to be an alcolic i had a break down and iv also had 2 operations and a metal plate put in my sholder i cant communicate with anybodu im so lonely i just want a cure

  14. MES is the worst. I can’t live with it.

    It affects my daily life, my hearing, my sleeping, and how I interact with people.

    It takes over your life and creates a different person.

    I don’t want to be negative but I feel for the someone who suffers from MES.

    Nobody understands. You are mental……….

    Thank you for sharing.

    1. I am so sorry that this is intolerable to you. I would suggest that you try to choose what you hear…imagine what that might be, and see if it works for you. You don’t say if it is music or other sounds. I hear music all the time. I played piano from an early age “by ear” Ha ha. So there is a load of musical memory. They say it is your memory that triggers what you hear. I hope you can resolve your dislike of your situation without medications, which I believe will only heighten the problem. My thoughts are with you.

  15. My mother has this and has “learned” how to change the music or song. She does not have hearing loss that I know of. She has played the piano all of her life. Very interesting.

  16. Im loosing my hearing. This information make sense to me. I hear a broadcast perfect when i close my eyes just before i get up. I could hear it so clear. In between i hear a horrible voice saying that they want me dead. Could someone could help?

    1. Hi Irma,

      That sounds awful! I would suggest seeing an ENT doctor. They might be able to suggest something to alleviate those scary sounds.

      Good luck!

  17. My mum has recently started hearing old songs from her past she has hearing loss and wears hearing aids, the doctor has recently prescribed her clonazepam are they to treat tinnitus or something like mental health.

  18. I have very expensive hearing aids. They help in only a few situations. I have a condition called “upward slope”. Do you know about this. Do you have help for me?

  19. I have been experiencing musical hallucination since May 2014 after I was prescribed Avelox, Nexium and Amoxicillin to treat a H.Pylorri infection in which I do not have by Dr. Dana C. in Victoria. Dr. Dana C. has since moved to Langley. I was hospitalized and followed with a psychiatriest who prescribed Ran-Escitalopram, Activan and a whole range of anti-psychotics (Seroquel, Abilify, Olanzapine, Zeldox) even though I do not have a history of psychiatric illness. I do suffer from hypothyroidits, and I understand that patients with hypothyroiditis will often have tinnitus. I am so scared as I find the music extremely unpleasant and is disturbing my peace. Can you help or refer me to someone who may be able to.

    Thank you.

  20. I have never been one to like listening to music orchestras or instruments playing but I was having great difficulties at work then one evening I went to bed as I was getting into bed I could hear loudly clearly etc from my left ear music it was beautiful cellos , harps and it felt so good calming and soothing I got up walked around the room thinking it came from outside called my kids and said can you hear that beautiful music I sware it felt like I died and went to heaven it was that beautiful. I don’t have hearing loss dr even gave me an MRI nothing all clear. The feeling felt amazing. Since then I have purchased music similar but nothing comes close to what I heard.

  21. I hear ringing, voices, and full songs. Sometimes I hear a person hollering for help or a baby crying but there’s nothing there. And it’s driving me crazy. I have been awake for nearly 48hours because I am still hearing it. Like right this very second I am hearing children’s toys. It’s 446am. There should be no kids with toys singing row row your boat. I need sleep. Does anyone have a method that doesn’t involve medication, I already feel like pharmacy with all the medicines I already take. Car alarms, toys, songs, the national anthem downstairs…. No that last one is actually real…. Yay that one is real. But, even that shouldn’t be playing at this hour. Oh well.

    1. My suggestion is for you to go to your primary Dr. and have him/her reevaluate all the meds that you are taking. I would bet that, since you are saying you feel like a pharmacy, you probably are taking some things you don’t need. It could be the combination that is causing the problem. Good luck.

  22. July of 2014 I had an accident. Among other injures, I received TBI to my left side of my head/brain and the bottom of the back of my skull. My question is, only at night when the house is quiet I hear, very faint music playing, or tunes of some sort. But tonight, I thought I could hear people talking, it again was faint. I can never make anything out, so frustrating. Is this normal. Yes I have had issues with ringing,dizziness, fatigue ect, but now I’m a bit worried.

  23. I’ve experienced a phenomena ever since I was a little girl in which repetitive sounds, like ceiling fans, humming motors, etc., suggest beats that develop into complex, multilayered compositions of my own creation i.e. they are not songs or works I’ve heard before. The type of music varies, depending on the original sound. There is often singing, but the lyrics are unintelligible, and are very much subdued in the background, like quiet mumbling. My hearing is fine; no tinnitus, etc., and I don’t hear voices (I’m not psychotic). Any ideas about this? Thanks.

  24. These sounds are not hallucinations! They are real and they change every time I hear them. It is easy to write these off as hallucinations when you haven’t experienced them yourself.

  25. I was diagnosed with Bilateral Sensioneural Hearing Loss 5 years ago and developed MES for two years ago. Initially I thought I had gone completely mad. It started with tinnitus, then humming along with the electrical appliances in my apartment. The sounds morphed into what I call “Gregorian Chanting” – which I am hearing as I write this. The chanting changes to actual songs…Happy Birthday, National Anthem, Old Lang’s Zine (not sure of spelling), and other songs never heard before. This collection of music changes during the course of the day, and the volume varies as well. This condition is very distracting when watching TV because the music morphs with the sounds on TV! I have to really keep the volume high to drown out my ear music. Very bizarre and annoying at times but over all it is on no consequence.

  26. I just started hearing this music about a week sgo. At first it was a men’s chorus in rounds. Then swing low sweet chariot, frere Jacques. Chorus of oh come all ye faithful, and when the saints go marching in, I can’t change the music. when there is not a recognizable tune it is back to the men’s chorus singing a round. It is driving me crazy. What can I do to stop this constant music????

  27. Does anyone hear someone taking to them directly? In addition to the music, my 88 year old mom hears a man talking to her. He travels with the singers and keeps saying he wants to see her. She lost my dad six months ago and I’m not sure if the two are connected or not.

    1. Mary, given your mother’s age and the physiological stress that results from losing a husband, I encourage you to take her to a doctor who is familiar with MES – I’m not sure all ENTs are. I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on the Internet, but I do have fairly extensive knowledge of psychology. The music your mom is hearing may be MES, but I feel strongly that the man’s voice she hears speaking directly to her may well be indicative of an underlying issue directly related to the loss of her husband. If she were my mom, I would seek input from a professional. I hope you are able to find a solid diagnosis that leads to successful treatment.

  28. I am 74 yo and have experienced gradual hearing loss. About two years ago I started wearing hearing aids, with the left ear having revealed a 90% loss & the right ear about 50-60% loss. The only cause explained has been this is hereditary. About two weeks ago we had to have our 13 yr old beloved precious lab girl put to sleep. She was the 2nd. one to lose in 9 mos. They were both extremely close to me and their loss intensely painful emotional and heart-piercing. Upon losing our second girl two weeks ago, I suddenly began to hear singing in my left ear. It is a male, low baritone voice, which sounds rather chanty at times like an old “monk” or singy-chanty in an unknown language. At other times I can hear very plainly and identify – patriotic music, church hymns, old southern style like “Old Black Joe”, and Christmas music. Some of these are repeated at times; other times as stated it is unknown language. It’s weird – the key changes, range, pitch, etc. all there! I am very solid mentally and physically for which I am thankful. I have suffered chronic depression since the sudden loss of my first born son in 2006. The trauma from that is indescribable, the pain and sorrow from which I shall probably never fully recover. The only medicine I take is the chronic use of antidepressant-anti anxiety pills. I find it extremely interesting that others profess to also hear similar music! aka Christmas, church hymns, patriotic, etc… Some of what I have read does state anxiety, shock, depression, etc. may contribute to this which would explain the recent loss of my beloved doggies. That may have been my “over the edge” plunge into such an emotional state(loss of those beloved ones, especially my son, and additionally my doggies) that opened this passageway either physically or spiritually now causing this phenomenon. This is also 24/7 and varies in volume at different times. When going to sleep it becomes very noticeable and now I have become rather used to this – as I just call it my lullaby! If it continues, as it seems plausible, I am OK with that and as stated, actually feel oddly comforted by the very ethereal singing! Hopefully this may be of some insight for others, just saying “enjoy the music”!!! Thanks

    1. Hi Rita….You are “lucky” you hear the music. Besides the music, I also hear a bunch of people arguing. Sometimes it wakes me up, and most of nights doesn’t let me sleep. I just want to tell you that you can control what is playing in your head. All you have to do is to choose your favorite song or piece and try humming it. It would go to the “library”, and the next, and the next. All the best and good luck…

  29. I have, since my wife died 3 years ago, heard music and dialog. There has been no external sensations. My children age 50 and 45 can not hear this but now I know why I heard the ” British Grenadiers March”all the way through.

  30. I started to hear the music intermittently about 7 years ago. 2 or 3 months I heard and then half of the year nothing. I heard mostly gospel and arias from many operas. I practiced mentally to play the music of MY choice and after several weeks I succeeded. My medical doctor sent me for a head CT Scan, it came normal and doctor said, there is no meds for tinnitus. So I accepted the opinion and tried to ignore the music. For the lunch break I used to go to the garden of our building, and I always said to my coworkers that I’m going to listen some music. And they laughed. Now since November I hear voices. Usually there are 3 people talking and arguing because I hear the irritation in these voices. Or sometimes it seems that a lector reads the news on TV in the next apartment. Most troubling for me is my mother’s voice. She talks with my nephew but I’m not sure. I never understand a word. Very seldom I hear particular word or two. (My mother died in 1999, and my nephew is in Poland). I’m so happy I found this page, actually my daughter sent me the link. Tomorrow I’m going to call an ear,nose&throat doc..

  31. Well I thought I was going round the bend until I read this. Thank you. I had surgery about a month ago on my hand and had general anaesthesia. I also take quite a lot of meds some of which I am trying to get off of. At night when I go to bed I get a bit of a ringing and then hear stuff – music – it can go from a Marachi band to a symphony and then an old fashioned voice singing “Feed the Horse.” My husband assures me there is no music playing. I heard stuff outside one night in our driveway playing — and there was nobody there at all. I am now putting this down to MES and the fact I take meds and had surgery. I hope it goes. I wish I could change the music sometimes. Oddly enough I do not hear it through the day. At night though I do sleep with fans on as live in California and it is hot and like to have the air circulating. I wear earplugs and they do not help as can hear it through them. I tried putting an ice pack over my ears and that worked a bit. Oddly enough when I prop up a bit it goes away – the music starts when I lie to one side. Anybody else with this. I am sick of the songs and wish could change them, but on comments above have a few tips. However, I will go to the doctor’s and mention it to her and she will send me to a specialist for this but I do not think any cure. I hear very well by the way.

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