Do you often hear music in your head since you lost your hearing?
Dr. Oliver Sachs explains the relationship between hearing and neurology in his latest book called, Musicophilia. I was so interested in learning more about it that I bought a transcript of his interview with NPR radio. If you want the full transcript, go to npr.org and do a search for “why your brain is humming to itself” or click on the link. Here’s part of the transcript. Copywrite laws prevent me from posting the entire thing.
“”Ms. CHERYL C (Deaf Patient): I had been steadily losing my hearing.
KRULWICH: Dr. Sacks, in his new book “Musicophilia,” calls her “Cheryl C,” not her real name, but about five years ago, she was at home with her husband, in bed, reading.
Ms C: And all of a sudden, I heard horrific noises.
Dr. SACKS: She heard engines going to and fro.
Ms. C: Trolley cars.
Dr. SACKS: There were sounds, there were voices, there were bells, there were screaming, there was clanging.
Ms. C: Cymbals.
KRULWICH: And all of a sudden, just “pow”?
Ms. C: Just all of a sudden.
KRULWICH: Trolley cars?
Ms. C: And I turned to my husband who was…
Mr. C (Husband of “Cheryl C”): Yeah, I was there. I mean, she jumped up and said I’ve got these noises.
Ms. C: I ran out of the bedroom.
Mr. C: Such a strange thing happening…
Dr. SACKS: She rushed to the window, expecting to see a fire engine. And there was nothing there.
Mr. C: There was nothing.
Ms. C: And I suddenly realized that these horrendous noises were in my head.
Dr. SACKS: She was having a hallucination, a sort of monstrous hallucination. She was terrified. She thought she was going mad.
KRULWICH: And then, after maybe 20 minutes of clanging and banging, just as suddenly…
Dr. SACKS: The noise was abruptly replaced by the sound of music.
Ms. C: “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.”
KRULWICH: And that song was followed by a slew of other songs.
Ms. C: Hymns, spirituals, patriotic songs, things I knew.
Dr. SACKS: And from that point on her hallucinations took the exclusive form of music.
Ms. C: Playing incessantly. I can’t stop it.”
This is probably a way over-simplified explanation of what happens during episodes of musical hallucination. (I haven’t read the book yet.) Apparently when you lose your hearing and your brain doesn’t receive enough hearing stimulation, it may begin to recall songs you’ve heard in the past such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s I Have A Little List or Michael Row The Boat Ashore. You will hear these songs just as if you were listening to them on a radio.
Sachs calls this a musical hallucination. These hallucinations are often referred to as of tinnitus, however not everyone who experiences tinnitus hears music. Further, one doesn’t have to be deafened to experience a musical hallucination. One subject in Sach’s research started hearing heavy metal songs after spending too many quiet days on a sailboat in calm seas. Unfortunately for him, he hates heavy metal.
The one complaint many tinnitus sufferers have about their musical hallucinations is the music they hear may not be pleasant. Moreover, it can be too loud. Sometimes tinnitus can keep people awake at night. Sleeping with musical tinnitus can be just as difficult as trying to sleep when your next door neighbor is throwing a loud party. Instead of hearing soft, pleasant lullabies, you may be subjected to loud rap. It can be difficult to concentrate when one keeps hearing the same music over and over too.
It is not known why the brain chooses certain songs or types of music, but it is possible that maybe the jukebox in your brain associates something with the the song it’s playing. Music can evoke associations with memory, feelings, colors, smells, touch and other stimuli. Eating certain foods may remind of us old commercial jingles, and tunes to TV programs might remind us of happier times when we were kids. The brain might then pick up on these feelings and play a song that we subconsciously associate.
Dr. Sachs has written several books including Awakenings which inspired the movie with Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams, and Seeing Voices, a book about Deaf culture and ASL. For more information about Dr Sachs and his book, Musicophilia, go to his website Oliver Sachs.