Musical Ear Syndrome – Auditory Memory versus Auditory Hallucinations

Hearing Health & Technology Matters
November 1, 2011

Most practitioners have had a client with various types of simple tinnitus (ringing, buzzing, chirping, etc.). Many others hear more complex sounds (music or voices), but do not report it  in their case history because they fear being diagnosed as “crazy”. The latter is known as Musical Ear Syndrome (MES), and includes hearing voices singing, bands or orchestras playing, or a sports announcer calling a game, all of which may have a very clear or faint quality, but is not directed to the listener.

By contrast, if the tinnitus sufferer hears voices that no one else does and if they perceive the voices as real and speaking directly to them about personal issues, it is a true auditory hallucination and the person should seek medical and mental health help immediately.  Even then, do not panic, because the condition may be a side effect of medications:   there are over 368 medications and other substances that can cause hallucinations, including Zyrtec and Claritin.


Musical Ear Sydrome: Is it Tinnitus or Hallucination?


MES phenomenon has been noted occasionally through the years, but has only recently been described in detail, and there are common factors involved. Usually, it is experienced by older people with hearing loss and tinnitus, who live alone and may not have the auditory or social stimulation they once had. MES may occur especially when it is quiet, when they are stressed, or if they are taking medications with inconsistent dose management. In these regards, it is worth noting that that MES and auditory hallucination can begin to overlap and merge in the absence of appropriate and sufficient mental health monitoring.

MES can be stimulated by other simple sounds, such as air conditioning or refrigerator motors. People who experience this type  of MES insist they feel an associated vibration and hear the voices/music louder when near a vent.  Apparently, the brain hears the cyclic nature of these sounds and modifies it into a more complex sound memory. It appears that the brain is so used to hearing sound, that it uses auditory memory to fill the vacuum of the hearing loss.

Now, it is important to note that there are people of all ages, with normal hearing, with or without simple tinnitus, who may or may not be stressed, who also experience MES in some form. As long as those phantom voices are not having solitary conversations with the individual and requesting them to do things, this may still fall in the “normal” range.  Each practitioner should have close communication with the primary doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists in the event we need to refer our client back out.

For more information on MES, look for the book, Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds, by Dr. Neil Bauman.  Those with MES also frequent MES support groups and an MES facebook site.


This post is adapted from an educational fax from our offices.  It was originally written by Diana Holan, MS.  She has been an audiologist for over 20 years.  She works at making life more enjoyable for those with hearing loss by improving their communication.  She also has an interest in how the brain plays a major role in our hearing.  She has worked in Tucson her entire professional life.

  1. Yes! Let’s get the word out to the patients primary doctor. In my past experiences…I don’t think a lot of them have a clue to “tinnitus”!

    The comments I have rec’d from callers where that the doctor said…”live with it, nothing you can do about it”, etc.

    Some people can learn to live with it…but some have it so bad that they are suicidal. I say that because I was extremely upset from a woman that kept calling and asking for help, to the point of telling me she was going to “kill herself”!

    That is when I started to research tinnitus.

    Years later, I had 3 callers in one year telling me of “weird” things, hearing music, etc.

    I am not a doctor nor an audiologist, just a person trying to help people. So, had to go to the “Master of Knowledge” as I think of him, Jay McSpaden, PhD, an audiologist and speech pathologist, author of many articles on hearing loss, etc.

    He told me all about it and gave me names of authors, articles, etc. I feel so good that I could get back to these people and share that information! They are NOT crazy…it could just be tinnitus!

    I wonder how many people are out there with the same problem…and too afraid to tell anyone, for fear that they may be thought as being crazy, like the woman I talked to that her doctor sent her for psychiatric treatment. I sent her articles, that said this syndrome does exist and to show it to her doctor.

    In summary…GET TO THE PRIMARY DOCTOR and educate them!!!

  2. have had this for 18 mths started as loud sirens alarms buzzing etc not only from my tinnitus ear but the center of my day listening to a tape of the grateful dead that ive heard 100s of times there was a smokin sax solo i chked liner notes ,no sax player!i kept it to myself for fear of schizo or crazy progressed to opers singers big jazz bands elec guitars syntesizers etc sometimes all at once,it wakes me in middle of night and goes 24 7 prim doc sent me to ear spec who sent me to neurologist who sent me to a shrink who said “it must be a medical disorder “repeated this circle along with 2 trips to er who wanted to give me percocets! good luck unfotunately deal with it is all i mcan do although not doing it very well,occaSIONLY ITS BEAUTIFUL BEYOND ANYTHING IVE EVER HEARD BUT MOSTLY IT SONDS LIKE THE SOUNDTRAC TO SOMEONE GOING CRAZY.

    1. mjaudseo

      I hope your medications have been scrutinized by those you have seen as this is a common cause. I have found to be a helpful site in looking up side effects. Instead of reading all of the side effects use a word search for things such as “aural”, “hearing”, “tinnitus” or “ringing” since there is not always a consistent phrase. I would check for prescribed and over the counter as well.

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