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Music in the Ear - When Deaf People Hear Songs in Their Heads

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Updated November 19, 2008

Older people who lose their hearing may experience the sensation of hearing music in their ears, even when no music is actually being played near them. Songs can play in the head over and over, at times making the person think they are losing their mind. They are not going insane. In fact, some people who hear this music learn to like it.

When an About.com visitor wrote that their aged father was hearing songs in his head, many people responded to the About.com Deafness blog post, "Hearing Music in the Ear?" What follows is sample of some of the responses [edited for brevity]:

"I’m a 62-year-old male, living alone [living alone is a common characteristic among people with this condition]. I hear music all the time. I feel that it’s great for calm, stressless and peaceful feelings. The music puts me at ease. The only thing i could add is that I had been going through way too much stress. When this came, the stress went way down. I like the music, too. "
- Hugh

People of any age can also experience it due to drug treatment, as seems to be the case with one blog reader, Janet:

"My daughter, who is 25 and has undergone radiation treatment 3 years for a tumor, has lost an enormous amount of her hearing due to the radiation treatments. Recently, she has been complaining that she is hearing music (seems like a radio station, because she can hear the announcer at times, along with the music). It has even been keeping her up at night...."

Research on Music in the Ear

"Music in the ear" is common among deaf senior citizens, and is a subset of the broader category of auditory hallucinations. (An auditory hallucination is when people think they hear things when actually nothing is there). One example of research on musical hallucinations in deaf people is the article "Musical hallucinosis in acquired deafness," published in Brain. This was a study of six people who experienced musical hallucinations after acquiring hearing loss. None of them had epilepsy or any psychosis. Theory that musical hallucinosis is caused by activity within a certain part of the brain. Brain scans were done to test this theory. The researcher found that imaging data did support the hypothesis, but also found that out of six people, only one improved with treatment. That treatment was improved amplification.

In a commentary, "The Power of Music," in Brain, Oliver Sacks, a clinical professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine New York, wrote that "Musical hallucinations are surprisingly common, affecting at least 2% of those who are losing their hearing." Sacks also cites one older woman's experience, whereas she "hears" music from her past. He also states that musical hallucinations cannot be willfully stopped, but they may be changed to other music.

Books About Music in the Ear

The book Phantom Voices Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds: Musical Ear Syndrome: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Auditory Hallucinations Many Hard of Hearing People Secretly ExperienceCompare Prices by Dr. Neil Bauman, goes into more detail on musical ear syndrome and offers solutions for dealing with it.

Sources:

Griffiths, T.D. "Musical hallucinosis in acquired deafness." Brain Vol. 123, No. 10, 2065-2076, October 2000.
Sacks, Oliver. "The Power of Music." Brain Vol. 129, No. 10, 2528-2532, October 2006.

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