You’ve probably heard of tinnitus—a ringing, hissing, buzzing or other persistent sound someone hears, even though there is no source of that sound to be seen. What you may not have heard much about however is Musical Ear Syndrome (MES), a form of tinnitus in which people actually hear phantom melodies.MES can take the form of one instrument playing something simple, an individual voice singing, even a combination of instruments playing an intricate piece of music. While any type of music might be heard, the ones most commonly reported are church hymns, Christmas carols, and patriotic melodies.
It may sound as if we’re describing the experience of an “earworm”—the sensation of getting a song “stuck in your head.” But MES is different. Where a so-called “earworm” is a melody or song one keeps mulling over, internally, an MES melody actually seems to be coming from a specific direction, as if it were actually being played nearby. The fact that the sound is happening internally isn’t obvious.
What is the cause of MES?Hearing music works the same way as hearing anything else: sound data travels to the brain and the brain tells you what you are hearing. Based on previous experience, your current situation, and other factors, the brain essentially predicts, using the available data, what sound is being heard. The stronger that sound data is, the less guesswork the brain has to do.
When the sound data being received is weak, the brain has to work a lot harder in order to identify it. The greater the level of one’s hearing loss, the greater the pressure put on the brain for the quick decisions that enable us to identify sound.
All of that decision-making pressure being put on the brain has led to a fairly common opinion that MES is essentially the brain’s way of trying to make up for the hearing loss by generating sound on its own; deprived of sufficient sound data, it begins to generate its own. As for who gets MES: where tinnitus occurs most often in men, MES seems to be more common in women.
How common is MES?There isn’t much published research on MES, but the few studies that exist suggest that MES isn’t very common. Some 20% of tinnitus sufferers report MES, which is about 3% of the general population. There is, however, a strong likelihood that MES is underreported, as people don’t want to be seen as unbalanced and “hearing things.” Dr. Neil Bauman, who gave Musical Ear Syndrome its name, has been in touch with enough MES sufferers to suspect that more than 10% of the total population has experienced the syndrome.
Is there a cure for MES?We know even less about MES than we do standard tinnitus but, just as with tinnitus, the answer seems to be less about a cure and more about managing the situation. Here are some ideas for dealing with MES:
- Identify it: Hearing music, out of nowhere, can be very unsettling. Getting a thorough hearing evaluation and an official diagnosis of MES can be a great relief. Knowing that others are experiencing phantom music can ease one’s anxiety over it.
- Manage stress: As with tinnitus, stress can make MES symptoms worse. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, may be of help. Such techniques can not only relax you and relieve stress, but they can also draw your attention away from the MES.
- Give yourself more to hear: As we mentioned above, MES is very likely the result of the brain being deprived of the data it needs to identify sound. Giving yourself generous helpings of strong sound data is an excellent thing to do. If you have hearing aids, wear them and keep your brain busy with the many different sounds you encounter in the course of a day. Spending some time outdoors, enjoying the sounds of nature is another great way to immerse your brain in sound. And, of course, there’s nothing like socializing and conversation to support hearing health and emotional health.
- Consider a medication adjustment: There are nearly 300 medications that have been linked to MES. If you are experiencing MES that seems to be a side-effect of medication, talk to your doctor about it. Please, do not adjust your dosage or medication timetable on your own, as that can pose serious dangers to your health.
If you or someone close to you is hearing music that isn’t really there or experiencing the more common sounds of standard tinnitus, please contact us right away. We’re standing by to help.