Readers’ Choice 2012 : Musical Ear Syndrome – Auditory Memory versus Auditory Hallucinations

Hearing Health & Technology Matters
December 24, 2012

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.

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.

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  1. Judy, this is an outstanding article!

    Also, my friend, London CI blogger Tina Lannin is extensively featured in a new excellent article on musical tinnitus in the London Daily Mail… And there’s a surprising finding between sufferers in America vs England! Simply copy & paste the next line into Google:

    Can’t get a tune out of your head? Tina had that for 30 YEARS… only to discover that the cure is surprisingly simple

    Dan Schwartz,
    Editor, The Hearing Blog

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