Musical Ear Syndrome


March 12, 2014: 12:25 pm: Musical Ear Syndrome

by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

A lady wrote,

For years my tinnitus has been a kind of sound of which I was rarely aware. Now, with a new, loud tenant upstairs, I recently started being able to hear his phone calls and conversations with people in his home upstairs. He speaks very loudly. I have a 25 – 30 dB loss in my right ear and a 75 – 80 dB loss in my left ear. I hear him as if he was in the room with me. Music plays all day, telephone calls all day, TV all day. He stays up playing music till 4 or 5 a.m. I have no escape from it. I hear him throughout my apartment, which is fairly large, but when I leave the apartment, the conversations he had stay in my head and I can walk away for quite a distance before it dwindles, or I try to distract it away.

The same thing happens with music. And actually with music, I can be listening to nothing and hear an actual song as sung by a famous singer in the singer’s voice. I hear it through the ear that has very little hearing, at least it feels that way. I thought “recruitment” might be an explanation, but I know nothing about it.

I have sought help for this, but it is not well-known where I live. I’ve read a lot and know it is not a hallucination, but is an illusion—it’s still miserable no matter what it’s called. I hope you have some ideas on this.

I think I know exactly what you are experiencing. You say this is not an hallucination, but rather an illusion. You might be interested to know that your above statement is one of the proofs that what you are “hearing” really is an hallucination. With true auditory hallucinations, you “know” what you are hearing is real, but you are totally wrong, because, in reality, it is totally phantom. That is the nature of an hallucination.

On the other hand, an illusion is where you hear something real, but you ascribe it to something else. For example, an illusion would be where you hear a person talking, but it seems to be coming from your cat’s mouth.

With an hallucination, there are no real external sounds around you, so your ears are not hearing anything, yet at the same time you “hear” sounds as though they were coming from your ears. This is what you are experiencing.

You say that your tenant upstairs is very loud. Yet at the same time, you have a severe hearing loss in your worse ear. You also say you hear the upstairs sounds and what he’s saying as though he was standing right beside you talking to you it’s so clear in your bad ear.

If you think about it, you know your bad ear can’t hear anything from the tenant upstairs. You have enough trouble just hearing sounds around you. Thus, if he is upstairs talking on the phone, you’re not going to hear him at all. Yet, you believe you are hearing him. That’s how hallucinations work. They totally fool you into believing they are real. And you justify your opinion by believing that you have a loud tenant, when in reality, he may be as quiet as a mouse.

Incidentally, this is not recruitment. Recruitment is where sounds become abnormally loud much faster than normal because you have a sensorineural hearing loss. Nor is it hyperacusis where you hear all sounds louder than normal. What you have is a condition called Musical Ear Syndrome. With Musical Ear Syndrome, you hear phantom sounds that you swear are real, but in truth, are totally phantom.

An easy way to tell whether your upstairs tenant is, in fact, having the TV on all day, having the phone ringing all day, playing music all night until 4 AM, etc. is to have somebody with normal hearing come to your place and listen. When you hear the phone ringing or the loud music, etc., ask the hearing person if she hears the same thing. If she is not hearing exactly what you were hearing, you know that these “sounds” are not real, and that you are experiencing an hallucination.

If there is no one that can come and listen with you—say it is 2 o’clock in the morning when the music is bothering you—record the music that you are “hearing”. Then, the next day listen to the recording and see if you can hear any music on it. If you don’t hear anything, you know you were “hearing” phantom sounds (again). Alternately, take the recording to a hearing person and have him listen to it. If he can’t hear any music, again you know it was all in your head.

These kinds of hallucinations are not psychiatric problems. In other words, you are not crazy. You do not have a mental illness. You are not going nuts. You are not schizophrenic. Rather, something is not working quite right in the auditory circuits in your head.

Furthermore, you are not alone. Thousands upon thousands of hard of hearing people hear similar things to what you are experiencing, yet they seldom talk about these things, for fear of being thought crazy and misunderstood by their family, friends and doctors.

That is why I wrote a detailed article on this very subject. It is called, “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 my book, “Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds“.

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December 1, 2012: 8:49 am: Musical Ear Syndrome

by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

A lady wrote,

About a year ago I started hearing low-frequency noise. I have had tinnitus for years. This is different. I only hear it in my home, my husband doesn’t hear it at all. I hear it in every room in the house. It seems to come through the walls. The sounds I hear are akin to a laboring engine outside my room. I also feel vibration along with the noise.

Last night I went to empty the washing machine, as I thought it was spinning. Sometimes I think it’s an extractor fan. Sometimes it’s an echo—kind of an underwater sound. Last year the water company tunneled along a few roads from us, and I am sure I heard that. Environmental men have checked with a sound monitor, nothing showed up.

You are not alone in hearing strange, phantom, low-frequency rumbling sounds. This is a form of Musical Ear Syndrome (MES). A number of people hear what sounds like trucks idling outside their bedroom windows or bulldozers working there. The interesting thing is that, like you, they also often feel the vibrations from these phantom trucks and machinery. When two of your five senses tell you something is occurring, it is hard to believe that it is all in your head. I too, know what that is like as I have similar experiences from time to time.

When you were in the vicinity, you may have heard the low-frequency sounds of the water company tunneling under the road. If you did, your brain would have stored it in your memory banks. Now and then, your MES kicks in and replays it for you so you hear it—or a similar kind of sound again—(and again, and again). The very fact that the sound monitor didn’t pick up any sounds is further proof that what you are hearing is phantom.

You just have to learn how to tell what is real and what is phantom, then ignore the phantom sounds. I just look out the window. If there are no trucks or machinery around, then I know the sounds are all phantom and I can safely ignore them.

If you want to learn more about Musical Ear Syndrome and what you can do about it, see my book Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds.

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September 10, 2012: 6:55 am: Musical Ear Syndrome

by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

Over the past few years I have been conducting a large-scale study of people who experience Musical Ear Syndrome (MES). To date I have collected the stories of more than 1,500 people.

As time permits, I have been compiling and analyzing the vast amount of information collected in order to learn more about MES.

Recently I totally rewrote the article “Musical Ear Syndrome, The Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds Many Hard of Hearing People Secretly Experience” that I originally posted on the Center’s website back in 2005.

In this first major update to this article, I have incorporated some of the preliminary results from this research project. This better helps us all understand exactly what MES is, the characteristics of people with MES, some common triggers of MES and a number of things people can do to help bring their MES under control. You can read this updated article here.

Interestingly enough, there has been a surge of interest in the subject of MES this past year. As a result, my book on Musical Ear Syndrome, called Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds is now my best-selling book—for the first time knocking Ototoxic Drugs Exposed out of the first place position it has consistently held for the past number of years. If you want to learn even more about MES, you can order this book from the Center’s website.

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July 27, 2012: 12:02 pm: Musical Ear Syndrome, Recruitment & Hyperacusis

by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

A lady wrote,

I came across your website while researching the term ‘recruitment’ which the audiologist mentioned to me this week. She tested me and I have mild/moderate hearing loss. The reason I had hearing tested is because I have sensitivity to noise and also tinnitus (low drum/bass sound). I live in a condo and I hear snoring below and lot of movement above from neighbors. I have developed a really huge intolerance of noise especially motor sounds and a sleep disturbance.

I started using Bose noise-cancelling headphones and thought I had discovered Paradise—for a few months—until I started having post-nasal drip and my left ear started with tinnitus. Now there is no getting away from noise.

I expect the tinnitus will resolve when the post-nasal drip clears and I can resume my ‘Paradise world’ with the Bose headset. I was shocked when my audiologist strongly advised against using the headset and mentioned something about recruitment. She told me my problem will get worse if I wear the head set. Now what do I do? I paid $299 for these and thought they were the best thing ever. Do you have any thoughts on this situation. I am perplexed.

Personally, I don’t think your problem is recruitment like your audiologist says. Recruitment is when certain sounds become too loud abnormally fast. Recruitment is not a supersensitivity to sound in general. Furthermore, recruitment is always a byproduct of a sensorineural hearing loss. The worse the hearing loss, generally the worse the recruitment.

Rather, I think your problem is that you have two other conditions. The first one is somewhat similar to recruitment and people often confuse them—namely hyperacusis. Hyperacusis is a supersensitivity to all sounds, not just certain ones that recruit. (Incidentally, you can have hyperacusis whether you have a hearing loss or not.)

The second condition I believe you are experiencing is Musical Ear Syndrome or MES for short. MES is where you hear phantom non-tinnitus sounds. Often the sounds are musical, but as in your case it can sound like snoring or people moving around upstairs.

My question is why are you hearing these sounds now? You didn’t hear them in the past, so why are you hearing them now? Also, why are you only apparently sensitive to these sounds, and not all other sounds? This is why I believe you have Musical Ear Syndrome in addition to hyperacusis.

Assuming your tinnitus is caused by your post nasal drip, I agree that when your sinuses clear up, your tinnitus may also go away.

However, I’m with your audiologist on your not wearing the noise-canceling headphones. Noise-canceling headphones have their place to be sure—and that is when you are in noisy surroundings where you need to protect your ears or go deaf. That is where you should wear them—not in your bedroom where it is relatively quiet. Here’s why.

God made our ears to hear sounds. When you wear your noise-canceling headphones, that cuts out all the faint sounds your ears normally hear—and you need to hear these sounds to keep your brain happy. When you wear the noise-canceling earphones, they starve your brain for sounds.

In addition, you have a mild to moderate hearing loss that is also starving your brain for sounds. As a result, your brain does two things. First, it cranks up your internal volume control to try to hear more sounds. When it does that, you now can hear fainter sounds—and regular sounds are now louder. In other words, you are more sensitive to sound. This is hyperacusis.

The more you starve your brain for sounds by wearing the headphones, the more your brain turns up its internal volume, and the more sensitive you become to sound. This becomes a vicious cycle. If you keep on doing this, you will likely drive yourself “buggy”, and you’ll have difficulty tolerating any sounds.

At the same time, because your brain is not hearing real sounds, it begins to manufacture phantom sounds. I think this is what is happening when you say you hear people snoring below you and moving around upstairs. I doubt that those are truly real sounds. Yes, they may sound like real sounds, and that is why you are being fooled, but they are phantom sounds generated in your brain.

To separate real sounds from the phantom, you have to ask yourself if it is even possible for a person with normal hearing to hear those ‘upstairs’ sounds from your apartment? Many apartments are built with carpeted, concrete floors. Sounds like snoring and people walking around just do not penetrate those floors.

For example, I know of people who are mad at their neighbors for making a lot of racket, when in actual fact, the neighbors are very quiet people and walk around in slippers on a carpeted floor. There is no way anyone can hear the upstairs neighbors walking around, yet the person below swears they hear them. One of the interesting things is they hear them even when the people above them are not home! That is another proof that these sounds are phantom.

I really think this is what is happening in your case. Continuing to wear the noise-canceling headphones will only make matters worse and Worse and WORSE.

I think you have another problem. You haven’t said so specifically, but I suspect that you are either particularly stressed, anxious, worried, or depressed. Any of these emotional conditions can trigger what you are experiencing. For example, anxiety can easily cause hyperacusis, while stress, worry and depression can result in Musical Ear Syndrome.

So what can you do? First, you need to give your ears real sounds to listen to. Rather than wearing noise-canceling headphones to block out all sounds, you should listen to some soft sounds—sounds that you enjoy—while you fall asleep. As an example, this may be a CD of calming music, or one of environmental sounds such as rainfall, waterfalls, waves lapping on the beach, etc.—whatever you like.

Doing this will give your brain real sounds to listen to. As a result, your brain will slowly begin to turn down its internal volume so you won’t be so sensitive to sound. In addition, the real sounds will also keep the auditory neurons in your brain busy so they won’t have so much time to generate the phantom sounds you are now hearing.

You may find it most helpful to read my articles, “Here’s Why Chronic Anxiety Can Result in Tinnitus and Hyperacusis“, and “Musical Ear Syndrome“. In addition, there are a number of other tips for dealing with Musical Ear Syndrome in my book, “Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds“.

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May 2, 2012: 1:47 pm: Musical Ear Syndrome

by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

A lady explained,

I am 38 years old. I have no hearing loss, yet I experience Musical Ear Syndrome (MES). Over the last couple of years, I began noticing that when things are very quiet, like silent almost, I hear faint music. I describe it as hearing a radio station through a pillow. It will sound like a country station one night, a 50s style radio host the next night and maybe classic rock the next night. I can’t make out words or complete songs, but there is a form to the music. If I turn on a noise machine, which helps drown out my husband’s snoring, the MES tends to be louder.

I’m just wondering about experiencing these auditory hallucinations w/out any of the monikers usually associated with the syndrome. I have no hearing loss, I have 3 young children so I certainly don’t have a lack of auditory stimulation and although I have experienced tinnitus from time to time, I don’t think the frequency is any more than any other non-hearing impaired person.

Some people hear faint tinnitus when it is very quiet. Thus, I’m not surprised that you hear faint music when it is very quiet. I think that is your brain wanting to hear something—and when it can’t, it makes up its own so to speak.

I’m not surprised that your “noise machine” makes your phantom music louder. In fact, this is relatively common.

A continuous sound such as a fan running in the background—it could be a furnace, air conditioner, fridge, bedroom fan, etc.—seems to cause numbers of people to hear phantom music.

Somehow the brain takes this constant background sound and modulates it into music. Some people have specifically noticed they hear phantom music whenever their furnace/air conditioner comes on and goes away when their furnace/air conditioner cycles off. Your noise generator is doing much the same thing for you. This is a special kind of MES that is relatively common in people with normal hearing.

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February 16, 2012: 12:44 pm: Musical Ear Syndrome

by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

A concerned daughter wrote,

My mother is 78. She has been very reclusive since her retirement about 15 years ago and has no contact with anyone other than me on the phone and one of my brothers. Along with her isolation, she has a bit of paranoia about sounds she says she hears in the walls. At one point she cut all the phone wires to stop the noise.

She definitely has hearing loss and several years ago specialists tried to get her to use a hearing aid but she rejected it during the trial period because she didn’t like the sound of her own voice. She blasts her TV which is evident whenever I call to talk with her so I know she can’t hear well.

In the last 6 or 7 months she began complaining about music blasting at all hours of the night. The music was so loud that she would be awake at 2:00 in the morning shaking and sweating from the stress. Eventually she started to believe that my brother was doing this to her remotely, and that he probably had put speakers in her attic and walls and makes the music go on whenever he wants to drive her crazy.

I live in a different state and primarily talk to her by phone. My brother does most of her shopping and brings her to doctors’ appointments when needed. He has been a very decent care giver.

We both started researching her situation and kept coming to articles on Musical Ear Syndrome. She has been resistant to believe this is possible until recently when I printed out pages from your website and sent them to her. I think I have her attention finally. I also ordered your book and I’m hoping she reads it and continues to believe that Musical Ear Syndrome (MES) is the explanation to her situation.

It would seem that she is a prime candidate for having MES. She is elderly, female, has had tinnitus, has hearing loss, is isolated, does not use her own voice much, and has been taking Elavil for over 25 years for depression.

I have suggested to her that she read out loud several times a day. I am trying to get her to take a walk around the block a couple of times a day as well so her ears hear different sounds. I think she also needs to see a specialist who can test her, convince her she is not going crazy, that my brother is not doing anything to her and find an appropriate course of action.

I’m sure you have plenty of emails like this and appreciate any advice you can give us. I will share your response with her.

I find it sad that your mother has largely withdrawn from life. Life is so much more exciting when you “join” the world rather than live apart from it.

I hear from numbers of daughters (and a few sons) telling me about their parents’ Musical Ear experiences. Some of their parents become what appears to be paranoid—but when you understand that they are responding to (phantom) sounds (which they believe to be real), you realize that those thoughts and actions are in fact logical and rational given what they believe they are hearing is true. Of course, from our point of view they may appear to be irrational—but then, we are not “hearing” what they are hearing.

The phantom music can be loud for some people—and because it seems so real, no wonder she was afraid about what was going on. That can give rise to further, and at times farfetched, scenarios such as when she began to believe that your brother put speakers in her attic and walls and played the music whenever he wanted to drive her crazy.

Of course your brother isn’t doing this. But I’ve received similar stories where the person blamed the landlord for supposedly doing similar things, or blamed her husband.

The reason for this is that the person is desperately searching for a rational reason why they are hearing these sounds. To them, the only alternative is to admit that they are crazy. Since they don’t want to admit that they are “losing it”, they come up with “rational” reasons to blame the phantom sounds on others.

The way to help people in this situation is to explain what MES is—that MES sounds, although truly phantom, are benign sounds. In other words, the person hearing these phantom sounds doesn’t have a mental problem, but rather has an auditory problem. You need to remind them that they are not crazy—that they are sane—even though they can hear phantom sounds.

Now that you have her attention, hopefully she will stop blaming your brother. You’ll know she has things firmly under control when she can say when she hears her phantom music, “my brain is fooling me again” and let it go at that. When this happens often the phantom sounds will begin to fade into the background. But even if they don’t, she won’t be afraid of them anymore.

Unfortunately, people that are depressed tend to focus more on such things. By worrying about them, she will just make the situation worse.

Your ideas of getting her to read out loud several times a day, and to walk around the block a couple of times a day are good ideas—both for her mental and physical health as well as to try to control the phantom sounds. I have found that more social interaction, focusing on the loves of you life and surrounding yourself with real sounds all help to bring MES under control.

There are a number of other tips in dealing with Musical Ear Syndrome in my book, “Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds“.

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November 22, 2011: 8:53 am: Musical Ear Syndrome

by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

Back in 2004 when I coined the name “Musical Ear Syndrome” for the strange musical hallucinations many hard of hearing people secretly experience, I never dreamed that someone would actually make a movie about it. But that is what has just happened. In fact, this short movie was one of 12 films nominated for inclusion in the prestigious 2011 Virgin Media Shorts film competition, the UK’s biggest short-film competition.

Ian Gamester, a Liverpool filmmaker, made the short list with a touching documentary starring his grandmother, Cath Gamester, who, after being prescribed anti-depressants by her doctor, now suffers from Musical Ear Syndrome (MES). As Ian explained, “She kept hearing the same songs again and again and thought that someone was playing a record loudly.”

Unfortunately, Ian did not win any of the three top spots at the gala judging competition on November 10, 2011, but just being nominated for this prestigious competition has helped more people become aware of Musical Ear Syndrome.

You can watch this 2 minute and 20 second black and white film here.

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April 25, 2011: 7:29 am: Musical Ear Syndrome

by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

A man wrote:

My 70ish mother has just started ‘hearing’ phantom singing. She is hearing hymns sung by angels and sometimes the beating of drums. She is a church-goer and as long as i can remember has been humming hymns at home.

A few months ago she became aware she was ‘hearing’ faint singing, but now it has gotten more serious. I say serious because she had no idea of what was going on. First she thought the house had an evil spirit, then she thought she was going to die because the hymns that she sings speak of going ‘home’ and those same hymns are

being sung in her ear by phantom angels accompanied at times by phantom drums.

She is healthy and is not going to die. Although God’s will is His will, she will not die because of the words in the hymns.

What’s funny is she only ‘hears’ the music and singing when it’s quiet and the heater or fridge kicks in, or water is running. Somehow those noises translate into music, then singing. Otherwise if there’s noise throughout the house, or she’s busy or even gets out of the house, she doesn’t hear the phantom singing.

Your mom’s experience and her interpretation of what she is “hearing” is not all that uncommon. Depending on their religious backgrounds, people jump to various spiritual interpretations of the phantom sounds they hear. However, the truth is that these sounds all are coming from inside her brain. Her auditory circuits are receiving some information from her memory. Thus she is “hearing” these phantom sounds as though they were real sounds.

It is not uncommon for people to hear hymns if they have been church goers and like hymns. She already had these hymns firmly in her memory long before she began experiencing Musical Ear Syndrome.

Again, depending on their religious background, some people believe that they hear angels singing beautiful music in the days or hours before they are going to die. This may be true in some cases—but I believe that the vast majority of people that hear such sounds are really experiencing Musical Ear Syndrome. I guess the proof would be if the person died soon after hearing this “heavenly music”—but in my experience this has not happened. So, like you, I don’t believe your mom has to worry about dying at this point.

I’m finding that more and more people are sensitive to constant background sounds like the furnace or fridge or air conditioner cycling on and off. These background sounds trigger Musical Ear Syndrome sounds in numbers of people. Somehow their brains either superimpose music onto a continuous background sound.

Since your mom only hears the phantom music and singing when the furnace cycles on or the fridge is running, this shows that it is a “physical” condition, not a spiritual one.

Fortunately, she only hears such sounds when the house is otherwise silent apart from the furnace or fridge running. When she is busy doing various activities, her brain is busy too. It has no time to produce the phantom sounds. However, when she is not busy doing something and the house is quiet apart from the fridge or furnace running, her brain again manufactures the phantom music.

One solution, once she understands what is happening, is for her to keep a radio or the TV on in the background to give her brain real sounds to listen to so it doesn’t feel the need to manufacture the Musical Ear Syndrome sounds.

In any case, once she understands what is happening, she is free to enjoy the phantom music if she so chooses—or to “drown it out” with real sounds if she doesn’t.

Some people love their phantom music; some just tolerate it; and others can’t stand it. If she’s in the first group, it makes life so much easier.

She can learn much more about the strange Musical Ear Syndrome sounds she hears and ways to bring them under control in my book, “Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds“.

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August 26, 2010: 10:11 am: Musical Ear Syndrome

by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

A lady explained,

I deal with noise complaints for a local authority. I have had some complaints that I believe are musical hallucinations, and have read and used your article about Musical Ear Syndrome (MES) to assist. We often also deal with complaints of low frequency noises, hums, washing machines, etc. that we cannot detect.

Having read your articles, I would like to know whether you consider simple noises such as those where the complainants claim they can hear washing machines/ tumble driers, generators, rumbles (sometimes with the associated physical vibration) that we cannot detect, to be phantom sounds or tinnitus? Is there a difference?

We have two current complaints from elderly ladies living alone who are utterly convinced that their neighbors are running their washing machines throughout the night, every night. I would like to give them some information to try to open their minds so they understand that there are some other explanations for their perception of noise.

When you took this position as an Environmental Health Officer, I’ll bet you never anticipated that one of your jobs would be to “police” complaints of phantom noise! Unfortunately, more and more people are “hearing” (and complaining) about such sounds.

As you are learning, when you receive complaints of noise that you cannot hear, nor can you detect it with your sensitive sound equipment, and only the person complaining can “hear” these sounds, you are probably safe in assuming that you are dealing with people who have tinnitus and/or Musical Ear Syndrome (MES).

In the past, I know even some doctors were fooled into believing such people had super-acute hearing (hyperacusis), and that was why they could hear sounds that no one else heard. For example, one elderly lady who was almost deaf—she couldn’t even hear me when I was talking loudly right into her ear—said she could hear sounds from way down the street, which her doctor had diagnosed as hyperacusis.

I thought to myself, “Yeah! Right! She can’t hear sounds from even 2 feet away—how can she possibly hear sounds from a block or more away?

Her doctors were wrong! This lady didn’t have hyperacusis, she had Musical Ear Syndrome!”

Thus, when people hear sounds that they swear are washing machines/ tumble driers, generators, rumbles (sometimes with the associated physical vibration) that you cannot detect with your equipment, and especially if they are also report feeling the vibrations of these supposed machines, you can almost be certain the person has MES.

You see, the people that “hear” such phantom low-frequency sounds also often experience an equally-phantom sensation of rumbling or vibration. This makes it most difficult to believe that what you are both “hearing” and “feeling” is not real at all, but totally phantom.

Tinnitus sounds are simple, unmodulated sounds, whereas MES sounds are more complex sounds. Thus I’d class things such as washing machines, driers, generators and so on as MES sounds, as they are more than just a simple, repetitive sound. Whether these sounds are tinnitus or MES doesn’t really make any difference—they are all still phantom sounds.

Another clue that you are dealing with people who are experiencing MES is your statement, “We have two current complaints from elderly ladies living alone utterly convinced that their neighbors are washing throughout the night, every night.” You know that no one runs the washer all night long—every night.

One lady complained to me that the couple in the apartment above her were making love all night long—every night. That doesn’t happen in real life either! She was also misled in believing the phantom sounds she was “hearing” were real.

In another case, a man believed that his landlady, who lived below him, had it in for him because every night when he went to bed she’d begin to play loud music. Not only that, he believed she also had some type of vibrating device that she attached to her ceiling to shake his floor. This man both heard and felt this phantom music every night—again, not a real-life scenario.

Furnaces, air conditioners, fridge motors and fans can all cause Musical Ear Syndrome in some people. Their brains somehow modulate these low-frequency sounds, and convert them into music—often sounding much like an orchestra warming up or playing. So there are all sorts of variations to what your ladies are experiencing. Although all the experiences are somewhat different, what remains the same is that all these people experience hearing phantom sounds, but cannot believe these sounds are not real.

In helping such people, the first thing you have to determine is whether they can understand and accept that the sounds and sensations they are feeling are truly phantom. If they cannot understand/accept that, then you are going to have a tough time.

It’s extremely hard to accept that something that has sound, has directionality (you know its coming from the landlady downstairs, for example) and has sensations (floor vibrating), all at the same time is not real. Furthermore, if the person’s only frame of reference is that people who experience such things are “crazy”, your job just became almost impossible.

I’ve found that people in their 80s and upwards seem to have a mental block so that they either won’t, or can’t, accept that these sounds are phantom. Generally, people under 80 or so, when you explain what is happening in their ears and brains, can accept/understand that these sounds are phantom, and then act accordingly—not banging on the landlady’s door at two in the morning demanding she stop the racket like the gentleman in the above story did!

You can learn more about Musical Ear Syndrome in my book, “Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds“.

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July 25, 2010: 10:53 am: Musical Ear Syndrome

by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

A concerned daughter wrote:

My mother is hearing a repetitive song and I would like to know what I can do for her. She is 99 years old, very hard of hearing, and because she does not hear people, has withdrawn and spends a lot of time alone. Even though I have told her that it is all in her head, she still keeps referring to the lady next door playing her music.

Being elderly, having a hearing loss, withdrawing, and being alone in a quiet environment are all factors that predispose people to hearing phantom music. The name for this condition is Musical Ear Syndrome (MES).

You can’t do anything about your mother’s age, but you can help her with the other factors. For example, she needs to enrich her environment with real sounds. She can do this by getting and wearing hearing aids, or by using various assistive listening devices that let her hear people talking to her. The more she stimulates her brain with real sound, the less time her brain will have to play the phantom sounds.

Getting her involved with people again—probably only one at a time since it is difficult to understand people in groups when you have a severe hearing loss—will give her something to focus on besides her phantom music.

When a person withdraws, they generally feel depressed and that often means they also focus on things going wrong with their bodies such as the phantom music your mom is hearing. The best way to treat this depression is to become involved in life again.

Incidentally, I have found that it is very hard to get people over the age of 85 or so to understand that the music they are hearing is phantom. They can’t seem to get it through their heads that this music is not real, so that approach may be a losing battle. Also, they may refuse to accept that what they are hearing is phantom because to them, hearing phantom sounds equates with being crazy, and no one wants to admit to that. Thus they continue to blame the music on others (neighbors).

Furthermore, since the phantom music seems to have directionality—coming from the lady next door—it is even more difficult to convince an elderly person that this music is not real, but phantom.

The trick is to get your mother’s mind focused on other things (and thus off her phantom music) by having her become involved in various activities again. When people do this, their phantom music often fades into the background to some degree.

Unfortunately, her phantom music may come back at night when her mind isn’t focused on anything. If her hearing loss isn’t too great, she could listen to real music on a bedside radio to mask the phantom music while she falls asleep, but if her loss is too severe (like mine is), this won’t work as the volume required would wake the whole neighborhood—and they’ll be upset at hearing real music in the wee hours!

If you want to learn more about Musical Ear Syndrome and some of the things you can do to help bring it under control, see the book, “Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds“.

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