by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A young lady wrote:
I was very interested in your article on Musical Ear Syndrome (MES). The description seems to accurately describe what I have been experiencing throughout my life, and I must say it is relieving to find out that I am not insane. However, I am still a little concerned because I don’t seem to match the description of someone typically suffering from MES.
First, I am only 21 years old. I began hearing phantom music when I was very young (quite possibly before I reached ten years of age). I vividly remember hearing a distinct pianist serenading me to sleep on many occasions. I would sit up in my bed, listening intently, but as soon as I sat up the sound would disappear. Once I returned to my previous position in bed, the music would continue.
I forgot about this strange phenomenon for quite some time, and as far as I can recall the music stopped as I entered adolescence. I have never had any hearing problems what-so-ever, so I didn’t bother with it. Recently, however, the single pianist seems to have decided to get fancy. Earlier this week I was settling down to bed in my new apartment and I could have sworn that a full orchestra was being carried to my ears over the air conditioning vent. It was very soothing and playing one of my favorite tunes (“Carol of the Bells” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra), so I didn’t bother trying to make the sound go away. I did notice that when I sat up the sound ceased, just like in my childhood. Similarly, as soon as the air conditioner turned off the music went with it.
I know that for the most part this sounds typical of MES, except I am not elderly, not hard of hearing, don’t lack auditory stimulation, am not on medication, or under any particular stress. The only symptom I may possibly share is tinnitus, but of that I am not positive. Occasionally I hear a high pitched single drawn out beep, but I had always assumed that I was hearing an alarm system or something.
I was just wondering as to your opinion on the whole thing. I figured I may as well make sure I am not crazy.
Don’t worry. You are not crazy. Nor are you alone in your experiences. What you are hearing is a rather interesting phenomenon. Furthermore, there is a perfectly rational explanation for your phantom music.
Since you are hearing a special variety of Musical Ear Syndrome phantom music, you do not have to fit into the typical mold of being elderly, hard of hearing, having tinnitus, etc. Younger hearing people experience such things too.
Here’s what is happening.
Sometimes, when you are relaxing, or laying down trying to go to sleep, your brain decides it’s time to have some fun. Somehow it modulates certain constant external background sounds so they sound musical. Examples of sounds your brain uses includes jet plane noise, road/wind noise when riding in vehicles, fans and other motors and even running water. In your case, as you discovered, your source was the constant background sound of the air conditioner.
You heard the phantom music when you were trying to go to sleep—but when you sat up, it went away because now you were focused on something else—discovering the source of this music, so your brain stopped the phantom music to do some real work for you. Then, when you laid down and relaxed again, your brain went back to its old tricks—and there’s that music again. This continued as long as there was a background sound on which to piggyback the music. Thus, when your air conditioner stopped, so did your phantom orchestra.
You are not alone in hearing such things. Here are some examples of similar experiences other people (some hearing and some hard of hearing) have had. The first example is very similar to your experience.
A lady wrote:
For years I’ve been hearing phantom 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 inner ear was making sense of faint but rhythmic sounds in the room, for example, the fan of the air cleaner.
Another lady, elderly in this case, came to the same conclusion about fan motors and phantom music. Her cousin explains:
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 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 phantom music can be started, then stopped, by switching the fan on, and then off.
This kind of phantom music can also be derived from airplane engine sounds. One lady wrote:
My mom is hard of hearing. Recently on a flight 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. But mom continued to enjoy it until the plane landed.
I sometimes have the same experience when I am flying. To me the noise of the jets eventually modulates and becomes “vague” orchestral music.This phenomenon is not new at all. One man recalls:
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 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. I just thought it was a normal response to a very much overdriven sensory system trying to deal with the auditory bombardment.
The same thing can happen when you are riding in a vehicle. 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.Others have had similar experiences in their cars. For example, a man perceptively explained,
The [phantom] tunes I hear appear to feed upon the noise of the expressway.
This is also Martha’s experience. She explains:
I have been hearing humming music 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.
As you can see, a lot of people experience phantom music when the conditions are right—constant background sounds, they are relaxing and their brains are on autopilot. So relax and enjoy your music. At least it is better than listening to the air conditioner!
To learn more about Musical Ear Syndrome and the many strange experiences people have with their phantom sounds, click on the above link.