Many of us have experienced the moment when a song gets stuck in our heads. We may find it pleasant listening to a catchy tune on repeat or maybe we find it annoying and wish for it to stop. For some, including myself, hearing a song on repeat may occur where we remember only a part of a song. It’s the mind’s way of trying to piece together the rest of the lyrics. I usually seek out the song in question so I can listen to it in its entirety. This is my way of extinguishing this “earworm.” Whatever trick you use to get rid of the “earworm,” it eventually wiggles it way out and you continue on with your day.
However, some individuals hear musical sounds in their head over and over. They hear this music or singing when there is none, also known as auditory hallucinations. This constant string of musical sounds can affect a person’s quality of life. In this case, it may be musical ear syndrome (MES).
“…some individuals hear musical sounds in their head over and over.”
MES is a condition that causes musical auditory hallucinations, usually related to hearing loss. These auditory hallucinations can range from popular music to orchestral symphonies, or even radio shows.1 They may be perceived as intermittent or continuous.2 The auditory hallucinations are non-psychiatric, meaning they are not associated with serious mental illness. However, the exact mechanism behind MES is unknown. It is not an uncommon condition, but it is rarely diagnosed.1
Read more: Mental Health and Hearing Loss
The causes of MES are not well known. However, a common theory is that the loss of hearing makes the auditory cortex hypersensitive. The loss of auditory simulation leads the auditory cortex to become over-active in order to compensate for the sensory deprivation.2
The brain uses information obtained from our senses, such as vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, to make sense of the world. When the sense of hearing is deprived, the brain needs to compensate for this loss. Thus, it continues to search for input. Without auditory simulation, the brain fills in the gaps and the result could be a variety of sounds. In the case of MES, the brain chooses to fill in the gaps with music.
“In the case of MES, the brain chooses to fill in the gaps with music.”
Musical hallucinations have also been found in association with social isolation, advanced age, brain lesions, and mental disorders such as depression.2
MES is similar to tinnitus and can sometimes be referred to as musical tinnitus. Tinnitus is also commonly related to hearing loss. The difference between tinnitus and MES is that tinnitus sounds are known to be single, simple sounds such as ringing, buzzing, hissing, roaring, clicking, humming, rushing, or whooshing. In contrast, MES sounds are known to be multiple, complex sounds such as singing, music, and voices.3 Thus, treatment options for MES and tinnitus may be similar.
Read more: What is Tinnitus?
If you believe you are experiencing MES, it is important to see a healthcare provider for appropriate diagnosis and treatment. There is no standard treatment therapy for MES. However, there are several treatment options that can be considered and discussed. Some examples include hearing aids, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medication, and lifestyle changes.
If you have hearing loss, wearing hearing aids can help with hearing loss as well as ease the symptoms of MES by enriching your environment with everyday sounds. This way, your brain does not fill in the gaps with its auditory hallucinations.1
CBT aims to reduce or change your negative responses to MES by changing them to more positive and realistic thoughts. CBT is not designed to eliminate the presence of auditory hallucinations. Instead, CBT can help you function well, even with the presence of these auditory hallucinations. Research has shown that CBT can be effective in treating tinnitus.4
There are some medications that may help reduce the effects of MES. It is important to discuss the pros and cons of medication and the possible side effects with a healthcare provider before deciding on this treatment strategy.
Moreover, you can make small changes in your daily routine to help reduce the effects of MES. These can include breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, exercise, yoga, and more. If there are further difficulties coping with MES, speak to your healthcare provider and determine if there would be benefit in seeing a therapist.
Incorporating a form of treatment can improve quality of life, reconnect individuals to their world, and reduce the negative effects that can come with MES. Treatment will depend on the needs of the individual. The outcomes will vary from person to person. Work together with a healthcare provider to determine a solution most suitable for you.
1Çakmak, M. A., Şahin, Ş., Çinar, N., & Karşidağ, S. (2016). Frequently Seen But Rarely Diagnosed: Musical Ear Syndrome. Noro psikiyatri arsivi, 53(1), 91. https://doi.org/10.5152/npa.2015.8815
2Low, W. K., Tham, C. A., D’Souza, V. D., & Teng, S. W. (2013). Musical ear syndrome in adult cochlear implant patients. The Journal of laryngology and otology, 127(9), 854–858. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022215113001758
3Bauman, N. (2016). Musical ear syndrome – The phantom voices, ethereal music & other spooky sounds many hard of hearing people secretly experience. Retrieved from https://hearinglosshelp.com/blog/musical-ear-syndrome-the-phantom-voices-ethereal-music-other-spooky-sounds-many-hard-of-hearing-people-secretly-experience/
4Jun, H. J., & Park, M. K. (2013). Cognitive behavioral therapy for tinnitus: evidence and efficacy. Korean journal of audiology, 17(3), 101–104. https://doi.org/10.7874/kja.2013.17.3.101