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“.