Listening To The Music: Do You Have Musical Ear Syndrome?

Nearly everyone can relate to getting a song stuck in their head. This often happens after hearing a catchy tune or a song with memorable lyrics. While it can be annoying, it is a temporary experience that does no harm. For some, the song in their head may not be so benign. Some people, mostly those with some degree of hearing loss, suffer from musical or auditory hallucinations that are not associated with a psychiatric condition. If you, or someone you love, hears music (or voices) that no one else can hear, it may be Musical Ear Syndrome.

What is Musical Ear Syndrome?

Musical Ear Syndrome (MES) is the term coined by Neil Bauman, Ph.D in 2004 to distinguish these auditory hallucinations from psychiatric hallucinations. People with this disorder hear phantom music, such as singing voices or complex symphonies, that no one else can hear. MES also includes other phantom voices and sounds, but music is the most common form. The origin of the sound is believed to lie in the ear and the way the brain makes sense of changes in hearing. 

What are the Symptoms of MES?

People with MES often report hearing patriotic songs, orchestras and Christmas carols. Interestingly the songs they hear are often seasonal, for example hearing Christmas carols during the holiday season and patriotic songs at Memorial Day or on the Fourth of July. Patriotic songs nearly always coincide with their person's national anthem, regardless of what country they live in. While Americans report hearing The Star Spangled Banner, Canadians report hearing God Save the Queen. It appears the songs heard are personally relevant to the hearer. But the hallucinations vary.

  • Radio Broadcasts - Some people with MES report hearing what sounds like a radio broadcast from the distance. While all the words may not be distinguishable, it may even include advertisements.
  • Voices - Some report distinct voices where every word is clear, while others report muffled voices as though they were coming from another room

Who Gets MES?

The vast majority of reported cases indicate this condition affects the hearing impaired and can even affect the deaf, however, one-third of the people with Musical Ear Syndrome have normal hearing, reports Bauman. It is typically seen in people over 50, but can affect people of all ages, even children. It affects women three times more often than men, but Bauman cautions that this could simply mean women are more likely to report their symptoms. The condition can onset at any time and may cause considerable confusion for those who suddenly hear sounds others in the family cannot hear.

What Causes Musical Ear Syndrome?

No one knows for sure what causes this unusual condition. Some believe that MES occurs in those with bilateral hearing loss when vibrations from the outside world trigger stored musical memories in the ear. Medical professionals agree that there are some conditions that seem to trigger the onset of MES.

  • Depression and Anxiety - Some people experience the symptoms of MES when they are under stress or suffering from clinical depression Treatment for this underlying disorders may put an end to their auditory hallucinations.
  • Noisy Environment - Living or working with constant background noise can trigger phantom music or voices as the brain tries to make sense of the sounds. Running water, wind and other natural sounds often contain a melodic quality that may be interpreted as music.
  • Prescription Drugs - Some medications can and do cause auditory hallucinations. If your symptoms coincide with starting a new medication, talk to your doctor.
  • Neurological/Brain Anomalies - There are a number of conditions affecting the brain that can result in auditory hallucinations. Common causes are epilepsy or certain infections.
  • Hearing Loss - Hearing loss appears to be the most common cause of MES.

How Do You Tell  the Difference Between Auditory Hallucinations from MES and Psychiatric Hallucinations?

Many people automatically assume that hallucinations are a sign of a psychiatric disorder, but there are some significant differences between the auditory hallucinations in Musical Ear Syndrome and a psychiatric condition, explains Bauman.

  • Communication - Hallucinations experienced by those with psychiatric conditions typically attempt to engage the person in communication. With MES, the voices and music are simply heard without any attempts to communicate a secret or coded message.
  • Content - With MES, the person is simply the impartial observer listening to a familiar song. However, those experiencing psychiatric hallucinations typically think the song or voice is talking about or to them explains the Fire Audiology and Hearing Center. The person may think the voices are bringing warnings or a message.
  • Behavior - Those experiencing psychiatric hallucinations often exhibit bizarre or unusual behavior, while those with MES typically show no outward reactions to the hallucinations, says Bauman.

If you, or someone you love, are hearing music or voices that those around you can't hear, check with your doctor to eliminate any physical causes first. If no causes are found, check with your audiologist to determine if you are experiencing hearing loss. Those with hearing impairments may experience significant improvement in their MES symptoms when fitted with hearing aids or other listening device.