Musical Ear Syndrome

When You Hear Music That Isn't There

Musicians are four times as likely to have hearing loss than non-musicians. Skynesher/Getty Images

Are you losing your hearing and sometimes hear music that isn't really there? Musical ear syndrome can be experienced by people who lose their hearing. Instrumental music or songs can play in your head over and over. These auditory hallucinations might be alarming, but they aren't a sign of mental illness. They are probably due to your auditory system and brain producing their own music because of the loss of hearing.

While it is disturbing for some people, many people get used to it or even come to like it.

Who Gets Musical Ear Syndrome?

Musical ear syndrome is believed to be somewhat common in older people with hearing loss, but it can occur with those who lose their hearing at any age. Neurology professor and author Oliver Sacks said that 2 percent of those losing their hearing will have musical auditory hallucinations, while Neil Bauman, who first described the syndrome, says it affects between 10 and 30 percent of people who are hard of hearing.

Bauman says that people predisposed to it are more often elderly, hard of hearing, lack adequate auditory stimulation, have tinnitus, and often are anxious or depressed.

Musical ear syndrome can also be seen in adult cochlear implant patients. One study found that 22 percent of the implantees experienced it before or after the implant. Of the 18 cases studied, most heard both instrumental music and singing, while some heard only instrumental music and some heard only singing.

Most coped with it well, but three of the 18 people found it intolerable. Some people report that musical ear syndrome keeps them from getting a good night's sleep.

Causes of Musical Ear Syndrome

The causes of musical ear are not yet known definitively. But the leading theory is that the loss of hearing makes the auditory cortex hypersensitive.

The sensory deprivation leads the ear and brain to produce these auditory hallucinations, similar to Charles Bonnet syndrome where visually impaired people have visual hallucinations.

A study using electroencephalography found that musical ear syndrome has some neural similarities to tinnitus, but that areas of the brain associated with music and language production were active when the subjects were hearing the phantom music.

An earlier example of research on musical hallucinosis in acquired deafness was published in Brain. This was a study of six people who experienced musical hallucinations after acquiring hearing loss. None of them had epilepsy or any psychosis. The theory that musical hallucinosis is caused by activity in a certain part of the brain was tested by performing brain scans. The researcher found that imaging data did support the hypothesis. They also found that out of six people, only one improved with treatment, which was with improved amplification.

Treatment

The focus of treatment for the syndrome is to improve the hearing of the patient with hearing aids and to encourage them to enrich their environment with sound. That way, the brain isn't filling in the gaps with its own auditory hallucinations.

If you are using any medications that might cause auditory hallucinations, your physician may change them or eliminate them. Some people may also benefit from anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications.

Sources:

Bauman NG. Phantom Voices Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds: Musical Ear Syndrome: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Auditory Hallucinations Many Hard of Hearing People Secretly Experience. Stewartstown, PA: Integrity First Publications; 2011.

Cakmak MA, Sahin S, Cinar N, Karsidag S. Frequently Seen But Rarely Diagnosed: Musical Ear Syndrome. Noro Psikiyatri Arsivi. 2016;53(1):91-91. doi:10.5152/npa.2015.8815.

Low W-K, Tham CA, D'souza V-D, Teng S-W. Musical ear syndrome in adult cochlear implant patients. The Journal of Laryngology & Otology. 2013;127(09):854-858. doi:10.1017/s0022215113001758.

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