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Musical ear syndrome

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What is musical ear syndrome?

Musical ear syndrome, or MES, is a condition that causes auditory hallucinations where patients hear music or singing that isn't there. The condition normally occurs in those already suffering from hearing loss and is a result of the brain ‘filling in the gaps’ caused by the hearing loss.

Musical ear syndrome causes

There is no single cause of MES, but medical professionals believe that it’s a response to the auditory deprivation that occurs with hearing loss. When your brain doesn't hear enough sounds, it overcompensates for the lack of stimulation and starts to generate sounds by itself. 
It’s understood that the condition normally occurs in older adults with hearing loss, but it can happen to those who lose their hearing at any age. Similarly, the condition is more common in those who are anxious or depressed, or are already suffering from tinnitus. 

While the research is limited, it’s also believed that MES may be triggered by the implantation or removal of cochlear implants.

Musical ear syndrome treatment

As the cause of MES is still unknown, there’s no specific treatment, but there are several ways to minimise the effects:

  • Understanding the condition: Many people with musical ear syndrome avoid going to the doctors for fear that they'll be diagnosed with a mental health condition such as schizophrenia, but the two conditions aren’t linked. The stress of not understanding what’s happening can worsen the condition, so awareness of the symptoms and treatment plans is a great way to alleviate any anxiety. 
  • Lifestyle changes: From mindfulness to meditation, breathing exercises to yoga, making a few lifestyle changes and taking the time to relax can help your brain to become more focused, and help you to learn to tune out the music. 
  • Increasing the sound you hear: As MES is understood to occur due to sound deprivation, effective treatment for the condition focuses on improving hearing by using hearing aids, as this stimulates the brain.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: As with tinnitus treatments, CBT can help to manage any fear and anxiety related to the condition, and to support patients in training their brains to ignore the music.
  • Medication adjustment: MES has been reported as a side effect when taking certain medications such as Zoloft and haloperidol, so if you think the condition is being caused by specific medications, you should contact your doctor to see if they can switch you to a different one. It’s important to note, however, that you should never stop taking any prescribed medication without instruction or advice from a medical professional. 

Frequently asked questions

Can musical ear syndrome go away?

While there’s no cure for MES, the symptoms can be managed and alleviated using a range of techniques such as meditation, wearing hearing aids, and cognitive behavioural therapy. 

Can anxiety cause musical ear syndrome?

While having anxiety doesn’t cause MES, increased stress, anxiety or depression can worsen symptoms while certain anti-anxiety medications such as Zoloft (or Sertraline) can cause auditory hallucinations.

How common is musical ear syndrome?

MES is extremely rare. However, Dr Neil Bauman, who coined the term, suggests that 10% of people with hearing loss will experience symptoms and that due to fear of being diagnosed with a mental health condition, a lot of auditory hallucinations go unreported.