What? I couldn’t hear you, the music was on

I hear music in my head all the time.  That must be an exaggeration, although it doesn’t feel like it.  Now if I’m actually listening to music–on a CD, on the radio or in person–I don’t have music competing with it in my head.  But typically, if there is silence, or someone is talking, or I’m watching something on TV (sometimes even if it has a musical score), I hear music.  (Right now it’s Lindsey Buckingham’s “Don’t Look Down.”)

No one would have to know this, except I often pat out a drum accompaniment to whatever it is I’m hearing, slapping my hand (or hands) against my knee (or knees) in time to the tune.  Or unconsciously start playing some sort of air stringed instrument.  This drives my wife crazy.  (She may use a different term, but she can always post a comment if she wants to.)

So she’s been asking me about what’s going on in my head when this is happening.  The music sounds, to me, just like it would if I were listening to a CD.  It’s not too loud, it doesn’t keep me from hearing other things around me (so the title of this post isn’t accurate, it was just meant to get your attention).  Sometimes hearing a few notes of something will start a particular tune in my head, or if I hear a discussion that triggers a memory a particular song will start.  But I have some degree of control over what I hear; I can summon up whatever song I want to hear, as long as I’ve heard it before.  I don’t hear songs all the way through unless I am making an effort to.  Usually it’s four or eight bars in a loop until the next tune comes up.  I honestly have no idea how long this has been going on.

My curious wife (her epitaph will consist of the single word “Why?”), who thinks this sounds very strange, took it on herself to research my condition and came up with “musical hallucinosis,” described by T.D. Griffiths in the neurology journal “Brain” as follows:

Musical hallucinosis is a disorder of complex sound processing. Subjects perceive complex sound in the form of music in the absence of an acoustic stimulus. As such, the phenomenon might be regarded as an example of mental imagery, defined as `mental acts in which we seem to re-enact the experience of perceiving an object when the object is no longer available’ (Halpern and Zatorre, 1999)….Musical hallucinosis may be associated with structural brain lesions, epilepsy or psychosis (for reviews, see Berrios, 1990; Keshavan et al., 1992). However, it is most commonly seen in subjects with moderate or severe acquired deafness, and as such it may represent an auditory form of the Charles Bonnet syndrome.

(Wouldn’t “The Charles Bonnet Syndrome” make a great band name?)

Gee whiz, that sounds a lot more serious than this feels to me.  Further reading makes me think whatever it is I “have” is different from what people diagnosed with musical hallucinosis have.  For starters, many of those people truly suffer and would do anything to make the music stop; I enjoy the sounds I hear.  The condition seems to be most often related to older people (older than I am) and people with significant hearing loss (my hearing appears to be fine).  I have a considerable variety in the songs I hear, it’s not like one tune I can’t stand just gets stuck in there for days or weeks.  The volume is not too loud, and the songs strike me as being musically “perfect,” not out of tune or otherwise annoying.  (I’ve switched over to the James Bond theme now.)  And I can manipulate the music I hear; I can extend certain passages, focus on particular instruments or add instruments, change the key.

I should add that I can’t play any instruments myself, nor can I read music.

Every once in a long while–maybe two or three times a year–I wake up with a melody in my head, almost never with any words accompanying it, a melody I don’t remember ever hearing before that strikes me as an original “composition.”  I like these melodies and typically forget them within an hour, they don’t seem to return.

Okay, your turn to judge…is this weird?

1 thought on “What? I couldn’t hear you, the music was on

  1. Jo Shroyer

    To say it drives me crazy is a stretch, but there are times when it is needless noise (since I’m not actually hearing the song the beat belongs to) or it vibrates a table on which I am leaning. That said, I think having music in my head while trying to listen to someone talk, when reading or watching TV or doing anything else * would * drive me crazy. How can you focus or attend to any one particular thing? [Needless to say, I do wonder what song is playing when I am talking to you. And do you turn up the volume? Room for some humorous speculation there, like a New Yorker cartoon.] But fortunately, it’s not my brain being affected in this way. I just hear the rhythm section.

    For my part, I wish I could just stop THINKING for 5 minutes. It’s always something.


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