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Musical Ear Syndrome
My Tinnitus Has a Melody — Is That Possible?
You probably know someone who experiences tinnitus — a ringing, buzzing, pulsing, hissing, or humming with no external source. People often call it “ringing in the ears,” and it affects approximately 15% of the U.S. population, according to the American Tinnitus Association. But did you know some people experience a form of tinnitus in which they hear actual melodies? It’s called musical ear syndrome (or musical tinnitus).
What Is Musical Ear Syndrome?
Musical ear syndrome (MES) is when someone hears music that has no external source. Some people hear a single instrument playing a simple melody; others hear several instruments playing a complex piece of music; and still others hear a voice singing, with or without accompaniment. The most common melodies, however, are hymns, Christmas carols, and patriotic music. How is this different than when you can’t seem to get a piece of music out of your head? In the case of MES, the melody sounds like it’s coming from an obvious and specific direction, so it’s not clear that it’s internal. It sounds self-evidently external. That’s why, for many people, it can take a while to recognize what’s really going on.
What Causes Musical Ear Syndrome?
When you hear something, you’re experiencing a combination of sound input, interpretations by your brain, and predictions by your brain. Strong sound input reduces the amount of predicting required by your brain. When you don’t get enough sound input, however, your brain has to do more predicting to make sense of the sound input it is receiving. The more severe the hearing loss, the more the auditory deprivation, and the greater the need for the brain to fill in the gaps. The most common hypothesis about what causes MES is, in layman’s terms, that the brain gets bored through sensory deprivation and starts to generate sound by itself.
Is Musical Ear Syndrome Common?
The few studies published in journals suggest only about 20% of those with tinnitus experience musical ear syndrome — that means about 3% of the general population. It’s most likely underreported, however, because those experiencing MES worry that if they tell someone, they’ll seem mentally unstable. In fact, Dr. Neil Bauman, who coined the term musical ear syndrome and has been raising awareness about the condition for many years, has heard from so many people affected by MES that he suspects the number is higher than 10% of the general population! Though tinnitus is more prevalent in men, MES appears to be more prevalent in women.
Is There a Cure?
MES is even less understood than tinnitus. But like tinnitus, there are some ways you can minimize its effects.
For many people, a great deal of stress and anxiety is alleviated when they can put a name to what they’re experiencing. Knowing others experience it also provides relief — it’s nice to know you’re not alone in your MES.
Stress has been shown to make symptoms worse, so finding ways to minimize your stress might minimize the severity of your MES. For example, deep breathing can relax your body, but it also pulls your attention away from the MES, allowing it to fade into the background. Some patients have also had success with cognitive behavioral therapy.
Bring more sound to your environment.
MES is a product of sound deprivation — give your brain plenty to listen to! If you don’t have hearing aids, get some. If you have hearing aids, be sure to wear them as much as possible. Get out in nature and socialize more. Natural sounds and conversations are ideal stimulation for a bored brain.
Adjust your medication.
MES has been reported as a side effect for almost 300 medications, both common and little known. Don’t make any changes on your own, though — consult your doctor if you suspect the MES is a side effect of a current medication.
Musical ear syndrome is real, and it’s more common than you realize. If you or someone you love suspects they have tinnitus — musical or otherwise — contact us today for a consultation!