Musical Ear Syndrome: Rare Cause of Musical Hallucinations
Published: October 11, 2021
Updated: July 19, 2022
Hearing, one of the five key senses provides us with access to the world we live in and allows us to share moments with those closest to us. However, it can be unsettling and stressful to hear voices and sounds that do not actually exist. Musical ear syndrome is a disorder that causes patients to hear musical hallucinations with no apparent source. While it can be difficult to diagnose and treat, understanding what it is and what you can do to alleviate the symptoms can be important first steps to recovery. We have put together a thorough guide on what musical ear syndrome is, what causes it, and what you can do to minimize the effect it has on your life.
What is musical ear syndrome?
Musical ear syndrome (MES), also known as musical tinnitus, is a disorder where patients experience musical hallucinations, such as singing or melodies without a physical source. Unlike hearing a song in your head, people who experience this perceive the sound as coming from an outside source. In fact, MES patients can often identify the exact direction of the sound they are hearing. The complex nature of these musical hallucinations makes it difficult for MES patients to distinguish between sounds that are real or fabricated.
The experiences of MES are diverse. Generally, individuals experiencing musical ear syndrome can perceive music with or without singing. These patients commonly report hearing musical hallucinations of hymns or songs that are patriotic or representative of a holiday (e.g. Christmas carols).
What are musical hallucinations?
Musical hallucination is a type of auditory hallucination, where the listener is hearing and perceiving musical sounds that don’t exist in their current environment. Musical hallucinations present themselves as either psychiatric or non-psychiatric manifestations. Psychiatric manifestations of musical hallucination are associated with mental health disorders such as schizophrenia. However, musical ear syndrome is a non-psychiatric manifestation of musical hallucinations. Musical hallucinations in a patient with musical ear syndrome are not related to cognitive and psychiatric affiliations. In fact, many MES patients can attribute their musical hallucinations to hearing loss.
While there is not a consensus on the cause of musical ear syndrome, most researchers and auditory health professionals believe that musical hallucinations are correlated with hearing loss and sound deprivation. Our ability to perceive sound from our environment involves a complex process. Sound from our environment needs to travel through our ears and hearing system to reach our brain, where we perceive and react to the noise. When we experience diverse sounds in our environment, our brain is actively involved in making sense of the wide range of sounds. However, when someone experiences hearing loss, they are exposed to less sound. The sound deprivation leads to less stimulation to the part of the brain that processes sound. Deprived of stimulation, the brain begins to generate and perceive its own sounds from our auditory memories. This leads to musical hallucinations that are characteristic of musical ear syndrome.
In rare cases, musical ear syndrome can be a side effect of medication or cochlear implantation. If you are concerned that your medicine or treatment is causing musical hallucinations, it is important to discuss this immediately with your hearing healthcare provider.
How common is it?
Musical ear syndrome is seen most commonly in people with severe hearing loss and those living a quiet lifestyle. Research suggests that MES has been experienced by almost 10% of people living with hearing loss. However, experts suspect that the condition is severely underreported due to the stigma of being related to mental health disorders. Additionally, musical ear syndrome is sometimes associated with tinnitus, a hearing disorder where patients with hearing loss experience ringing or buzzing sound with no external source.
Treatment of musical ear syndrome
Despite musical ear syndrome not presenting as a life-threatening condition, it can cause a lot of distress and infringe on one’s quality of life (QoL). While there’s currently no cure for it, there are treatment strategies that aim to reduce the negative effects of MES and improve the patient’s quality of life. Healthcare professionals utilize two types of treatment strategies to help patients manage musical ear syndrome.
1. Amplification with hearing aids
As musical ear syndrome is correlated with sound deprivation, one of the main treatment strategies is amplifying the sound that the patient is exposed to. For instance, assistive hearing devices such as hearing aids have been effective at reducing musical hallucinations in MES patients experiencing hearing loss. By amplifying the sounds musical ear patients hear, hearing aids give the brain the auditory stimulation it requires. When someone with MES is getting enough auditory input, it may reduce the occurrence and severity of musical hallucinations they experience.
While hearing aids are a successful strategy for alleviating symptoms of musical ear syndrome, it is a solution that requires time and patience. It is important for patients to wear and use their hearing aids frequently and consistently. To get used to your new hearing aids, try using your hearing aid for short bursts throughout the day. Slowly increase how long you use your hearing aid until you can wear it comfortably throughout your day. As you slowly feed your brain with the diverse stimulation it requires, be cognizant of how much sound you are exposed to every day. Sound deprivation can make your ears more sensitive, so it is beneficial for musical ear syndrome patients to increase the diversity and intensity they are exposed to gradually. You can begin by listening to sounds in the environment, and progress to conversations with family or friends or a documentary on the radio.If you have been fitted with a hearing aid and continue to experience musical hallucinations, it is important to have a conversation with your hearing healthcare professional.
In addition to amplification, another treatment strategy for musical ear syndrome is awareness. By being cognizant of every musical hallucination, these patients can better develop an action plan to reduce the symptoms when episodes begin. Two effective techniques you can utilize when you experience a MES episode are distracting yourself by listening to other sounds and training your mind to ignore the musical hallucinations.
Distracting oneself can involve putting on the television or radio, or any sound source sufficiently loud enough to drown out the musical ear syndrome signals. Alternatively, you can try focusing on another sound in your environment. This is a useful technique if you are in an environment that you can control, such as your home. However, it may be difficult to accomplish in unfamiliar and fluid environments, such as a party. However, hearing aids can help you distract yourself and tune into specific sounds, no matter what environment you are in. Many modern hearing aids come with specialized connectivity and application functions that feed music or sounds directly to you.
To recognize and ignore the melodies from musical hallucination requires sharpening your awareness and mindfulness. By training your mind to re-route its focus at the onset of a musical ear syndrome episode, you can effectively reduce your awareness of the musical hallucination. Meditation can be an effective way to clear the mind and focus on thoughts that are important to you. Try meditating by breathing in and out deeply and focusing on how your lungs are taking in air and expelling air. In addition to building your ability to ignore musical hallucinations, meditation is a powerful way to de-stress and help you manage the symptoms ofMES.
Musical ear syndrome is a non-psychiatric disorder that causes musical hallucinations with no external source. While it is a disorder that can cause a lot of stress and anxiety, there are many methods of treatment that are effective at managing musical hallucinations. If you require advice on musical ear syndrome, a hearing health expert can provide you with insight. You can also take our free online hearing test and receive your hearing results in less than 2 minutes.