by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
Don’t let the weird Greek words in the title scare you off from reading this fascinating article on one category of Musical Ear Syndrome (MES).
Musical Ear Syndrome is a relatively common phenomenon where you hear non-tinnitus, phantom sounds that are not of a psychiatric nature. Typically, you would hear what sounds like music, singing or voices. If you hear music or singing, it may be vague or clear. If you hear voices, typically they sound vague—like a TV playing in another room. For example, you might “know” it is an man announcing a game, but you can’t understand any/many words.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting. There are two categories of MES. In the first category, there is no apparent external stimulus for the phantom sounds your are hearing (a truly phantom sound). However, in the second category, the phantom music or singing is triggered by an unrelated external background sound whether the person is aware of this sound or not.
For example, you begin hearing music when you are near a fan. The fan is not producing music. It is just producing fan noise. However, your brain modifies this fan noise so you perceive it as music.
This happens because your brain is a pattern recognition machine. In other words, your brain tries to find meaning in all the sensory input it receives. (Here, we are just talking about auditory input, but the same applies to our other senses as well.)
When you were born, you did not know language (or anything else for that matter). Yes, you heard various sounds, but they were basically just a jumble of meaningless data when they arrived at your brain.
At this point, because your brain is a pattern recognition machine, it goes to work and begins searching this mass of data for patterns of sounds. Whenever it sees a recurring pattern, it catalogs these sounds and slowly you begin to understand language.
At first it is very simple language—ma ma and da da. Then, as your brain gets better at it, your brain extracts more and more patterns of speech sounds and you begin to understand more complex language.
This pattern recognition continues all your life. Whenever you hear sounds, your brain tries to make sense of them by trying to match them to patterns already stored in its data base.
Sometimes these sounds are meaningful, such as speech, and sometimes they are just random sounds without any intelligibility in them. But your brain doesn’t know this, so it searches these random sounds looking for patterns (intelligibility).
The fancy Greek word used to describe searching for patterns in random data is called “apophenia” (ah-poe-FEE-nee-ah) from two Greek words “apo”—away from, and “phaenein”—to show. (1) It basically means to see/hear something that is away from reality (i.e. not real).
Thus apophenia is the experience of perceiving patterns (actually pseudo-patterns) in random, and thus meaningless, data (1)—in our examples, random auditory data.
This brings us to the second Greek term–pareidolia (par-ih- DOE- lee-ah). Pareidolia comes from two Greek words “para”—wrong, and “eidolon”—image. (2) Pareidolia is the neurological phenomenon of perceiving a pattern in random noise (data) where in reality there is no such pattern. (3)
In other words, pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon where you interpret a vague stimulus (in our example, fan noise) as something known to the observer (in this case, music). Thus you perceive this as something significant (real), when it is not really significant (real). (4) It is not music, it is still just fan noise.
Pareidolia is actually the audiovisual form of apophenia—perceiving patterns within random data. (4) Therefore, audio pareidolia is specifically looking for patterns within random sounds.
Audio pareidolia is hearing words/music that are not actually in the sounds you are hearing. This can occur by misinterpreting words that are being said, or by hearing words in random noise. In audio pareidolia, your brain searches for a recognized pattern, finds the closest match, and then processes the incoming sensory information to enhance the apparent match. (3)
Incidentally, a mondegreen (see Mondegreens and Hearing Loss) is a specific case of audio pareidolia. The core phenomenon is the subconscious searching for a best pattern fit for ambiguous sensory input. Sure, random noise is maximally ambiguous, but that does not mean that garbled or difficult-to-make-out lyrics cannot also qualify. (3) This has occurred more often than you might care to remember if you have a hearing loss.
People with audio pareidolia (the second category of MES sounds) typically hear words or music when exposed to softer, constant background sounds such as fans or engines running. If there is just the suggestion of music or speech or singing in the sound, that is enough for our brains and off they go—finding the closest match to a recognized pattern. They then enhance, and even fill in, details to create the illusion of hearing a choir or orchestra or whatever. (3)
When you don’t understand audio pareidolia, you can jump to some weird and even bizarre conclusions. This is because you fail to understand the nature of the human mind. Your brain can be fooled, and thus, you can be fooled. (3) Here’s why.
Your brain actively processes sensory input. It makes many assumptions and forces fits to recognized patterns. Your brain does not give a truly objective and accurate representation of the world. Rather, it gives you a human view—one that is full of pattern recognition—sometimes real, sometimes forced. (3)
As a result, sometimes certain constant external background sounds become the basis for perceiving speech and music. Examples of these sounds include jet plane noise; road/wind noise when riding in vehicles; fans and other motors; and running water. In addition, the incessant rattle of a train’s wheels clickety-clacking down the tracks may eventually also sound like rhythmic, illusory, repetitive phrases.
Now let’s look at a number of real examples of people who have experienced audio pareidolia. Some of these examples are from people with hearing loss, and some are from people with normal or near-normal hearing.
The following stories are from people whose brains converted the meaningless sounds made by fans, furnaces and air conditioners into music and other sounds.
“Sandi” explained, “I have had Musical Ear Syndrome since childhood. I can’t remember not hearing “ethereal music” from time to time, most often in connection with forced- hot-air heating systems.”
“Anne” wrote, “I have a 30-35 dB hearing loss. Recently, I have started hearing things that are not there. I will be in a room with a ceiling fan and air conditioner running, and I will hear a radio playing.”
“Nancy” noted: “I have great hearing. I hear music whenever a fan is blowing in the house.”
“Bruce” explained, “I hadn’t heard my MES for about four months. However, it came back 3 nights ago. Coincidentally, for the past three nights I have had the ceiling fan on for the first time in four months. I am certain that the ambient fan noise is the reason. I believe the noise the fan makes mimics the noises I hear when my MES is active (I generally hear news broadcasts dimly in the background with only a rare word or two discernible). Occasionally I hear music.”
“James” wrote, “I recently moved into an apartment with my wife. Our bedroom has an air conditioner (which is extremely loud at night, and because of where we live, we cannot do without it). Now I am hearing the greatest hits of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s coming from the air conditioner. When it is off, no music. I woke my wife up night after night asking if she heard this music. Of course she didn’t hear any music.”
“Stephanie” related, “I sleep with a fan on. I need the white noise to mask my tinnitus so I can sleep at night. A few months ago I started hearing what sounds like a woman humming a melody. If I turn off the fan it stops.”
“Ursala” wrote, “For years I’ve been “hearing” music of various sorts when I lay in bed waiting to go to sleep—a wide variety, from band and orchestral, to Irish folk music, symphony, opera and so on. My only explanation for it was that my brain was trying to making sense of the faint but rhythmic sounds of the fan in the air cleaner.”
“Selma” discovered that her MES responded to the sounds produced by electric fans. Apparently the music she hears can be initiated by her proximity to various electrical appliances! Not only initiated, but even terminated when the appliance is switched off. It appears that the source of the “trigger” is the acoustic noise produced by the fan in each of the appliances, viz. a fan heater, an exhaust fan above hot plates, and a fan in a microwave oven. The music can be started, then stopped, by switching the fan on, and then off.
“John” explained, “I have normal hearing. Apart from thinking I can hear people talking, I hear music if there is white noise or a rhythmic sound. As a child I spent time in a wool-shed when the sheep were being shorn, and the rhythmic sound of the very low speed motors driving the shears seemed to alter in tone to create melodies. Fans producing white noise also create melodies but in a much more soothing, harmonious way. I actually quite enjoy lying in bed listening to the hum of one particular fan which emits a soothing sound which I think is pretty close to a C major chord. If I listen I can hear what sounds like choral music, usually female voices, gently moving about the scale. It is very beautiful and I can even sort of “Direct it” to create my own compositions. I am musical and play an instrument but I think it is amazing how strong and pleasing this music from the white noise is for me. It sounds so real.”
Paul noted, “I’ve had this for years and have noticed the pattern recognition has improved to the point where I can actually hear lyrics, guitar and recognize the chords—(I also play guitar) however, these often aren’t songs I have ever heard before. So sometimes I write them down and—ta-da—free song written by my furnace!
It only happens with certain fans, or my furnace when I’m sitting in a specific spot. When I turn my head, the music goes away. When the furnace goes off, the music goes away. I find it fascinating and love it.”
Apart from fans and electric motors running, your brain can convert other constant background noises into music. Sometimes the background sounds are the constant drone of airplane engines. Other times they are road/tire noise. Here are some examples of each.
“Bill”, a man with normal hearing recalled, “During WW II, I was a passenger in C-47 (DC-3) military aircraft given mostly to hauling freight and the like in the southwest Pacific area. Flights were long and very noisy. I discovered I could hear music in the noise and used it as a form of entertainment. I found that I had no immediate control over the music, but I could “put in a request” and a few minutes later I would often hear the music “requested.” I heard a lot of choral music and popular orchestras. If one were lucky, one might have a lot of mail sacks to bed down on, and the music made a very nice sendoff to dreamland.”
“Fred” actually tried to make such musical sounds come true. He explained, “I was on a plane, near the engines at the back, in a very noisy spot. I told myself that I would hear music—not just imagine it, but hear it through my ears. I listened for music very hard. At first I only head a couple of notes; eventually, as I strained to hear what was there, I could hear sustained melodies. With repeated practice, hearing the music became less and less of an effort. To make a long story short, my dominant experiences were of marching music and male choirs.”
“Rosemary” recounted, “My mom is hard of hearing. Recently on a trip to Arizona with my dad she commented to dad when they arrived at their hotel that she really enjoyed the music on the plane. Dad said there was no music on the plane. On the return trip, mom started hearing the music again and told dad to listen. He said, nope, no music. Mom told him to put on his hearing aids. He did. Nope, no music. But mom continued to enjoy the music until the plane landed.”
A similar thing happened to me when I used to drive my old jalopy with the windows open. I’d have the radio turned up so I could hear the beautiful classical music I like. When I’d turn the radio off, often I would still hear the music for miles and miles. The wind and road noise combined in my brain and took on a musical quality. I knew what was happening, but it was very pleasant, just the same.
Here is how “Richard” expressed a similar experience. He wrote, “Another oddity is that the tunes increase in volume when I am driving on the expressway. This is very peculiar because the tunes appear to feed upon the noise of the expressway.”
This was also “Dorothy’s” experience. She is hard of hearing and wears hearing aids. She explained, “I have been hearing humming music in my head for over 8 years. I first started hearing it when I was traveling 70 miles each way to work on the Interstate. I associated it with the noise of the tires on the road.”
So now you know what audio pareidolia is. Your brain is a incredible pattern recognition machine. It is programmed to find patterns out of the voluminous data your senses send to it every minute.
Typically, it does an excellent job. However, sometimes it appears to have an “overactive imagination”. The result? It does too good a job of finding patterns and finds patterns even where non exist, and thus you hear music when none is present.
What can you do about it? First recognize it for what it is—a category of Musical Ear Syndrome where your brain is trying to make sense out of random background sounds. Second, don’t worry that you are going crazy when you experience such sounds. You’re not. Just sit back and enjoy them. After all, it’s just part of being human.
To learn more about Musical Ear Syndrome, read our article entitled, “The Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds Many Hard of Hearing People Secretly Experience“.
In addition, you can learn even more about Musical Ear Syndrome in our book, “Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds“.
(3) Steven Novella, http://theness.com/roguesgallery/index.php/skepticism/audio-pareidolia/