Musical ear syndrome (MES) is a condition that causes patients, usually with some level of hearing impairment, to report hearing music when there is none. Most individuals who are experiencing these auditory hallucinations are not diagnosed with any type of psychiatric condition like schizophrenia, so the origin of the musical hallucinations is largely unknown. These hallucinations can range from radio songs, orchestra music, and popular music,1 to non-specific rhythms, tunes, harmonies, timbres, etc.2 At first, the patient experiencing the hallucinations might think that the music is coming from an external source, but eventually they discover that their minds were generating the sound.2 This experience can be disturbing for patients, but education about musical ear syndrome and its symptoms is usually helpful.
People with musical ear syndrome hear music while there is none. Patients with tinnitus hear ringing noises in their ears even though there is no external source causing the ringing. Tinnitus can also cause noises like clicking, hissing, buzzing, humming, or roaring in the ear.3 Musical ear syndrome tends to affect smaller populations and evoke a stronger emotional response in patients. Sometimes patients report hearing music that they remember from their youth. Both musical ear syndrome and tinnitus are often linked to hearing loss, however; the primary mechanism that causes musical hallucinations other than hearing loss is still unknown.
A study done on a population with acquired hearing loss suggested that around 1% of that population had experienced musical hallucinations at some point, and this number might be too small as musical hallucinations are typically underreported. Another survey of patients completing hearing tests found that 3.6% of the cases has reported musical hallucinations.2
Aside from hearing loss, there are a few factors that increase your risk for musical hallucinations such as advanced age, tinnitus, and living alone. It is also appears more common among women than men, but women might be overrepresented in the sample sizes.2
More research into potential treatments for musical hallucinations is still needed, but there are a few treatment methods that are being studied with some positive results. If the underlying cause of a patient’s musical ear syndrome is hearing loss, oftentimes a hearing aid is helpful in maximizing other sounds around the patient and minimizing musical hallucinations. Other treatments include enriching the patient’s own environment/home with sound to reduce the amount of sound being created by their brain. If these auditory hallucinations are affecting a patient’s quality of life, being educated about musical ear syndrome has shown to decrease concerns about a patient’s own mental health. Lastly, some drugs have shown to be successful in treating musical hallucinations in some patients, in addition to cognitive behavioral therapy.1,4