14 December 2020

My Musical Hallucinations

Speaking of books, one of the things that well-meaning people say when I mention that I have musical hallucinations is, "It's too bad Oliver Sacks is not alive." Sure, I'm sorry the the celebrated popularizer of neurological oddities is dead. But not as sorry as I am that Mozart is dead. Or Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, for that matter. The author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat could have written The Woman Whose Right Ear Played "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." But I'd rather have the composer of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" itself or the guys who wrote "Over the Rainbow."  

Sacks could have told my story entertainingly. But I don't need a ghostwraconteur, thank you. I've got one in my head, as every storyteller does—along with the entity I call the Maestro, who's been giving me private concerts since June 2019. 
Don't worry, I'm not nuts. It's simply the name I've given the neurological phenomenon they call musical hallucinations. They’re not in my head, like an earworm, but more like a radio playing close by or sometimes like earphones in my ears. They come from the unconscious, from the musical archives of the person experiencing them. People who have MH have reported hearing a range from nursery rhymes to Chinese opera. Mine are particularly rich, because I have been listening to and making music since early childhood: Girl Scout campfire songs, Broadway show tunes, union songs, and Appalachian ballads on the one hand, classical music on the other. Mozart in, apparently, Mozart out. 
Musical hallucinations sit at the crossroads of neurology, otology, and psychiatry. I already have migraines and partial hearing loss, and I'm a therapist myself. And I’m Jewish. So doctors, I’ve got. They’re on it, they’re on it. And so am I. Having combed the Internet for the literature, we know a few things. It's not as rare as all that, just poorly studied and reported. The causes vary, and there are no treatment protocols. Not only older women get it as usually reported, but also "youts" (don’t you love that word?) who've been playing too much Super Mario. And not a single expert can tell us how to make it stop.

Why would I want to make it stop? you may ask. It sounds fascinating, I hear you say. At any moment, my private concert may be a  baroque string ensemble improvising theme and variations, a world class symphony orchestra, a cello cadenza (right ear) or a coloratura aria (left ear) in the shower. The stimulus of whirling fans or a humming refrigerator may elicit a choral work, eg the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth to Christmas carols in six-part harmony with pipe organ. A brisk walk may summon up a Scottish ballad with bagpipes or a marching band with tuba and bassoon. Sometimes there’s no special stimulus. The Maestro has been known to burst into a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” for no reason in particular. Everyone wants to hear the song of the Sirens, don’t they? I get them for free. So what's the catch? 

The catch is that the Sirens have no Off button. As you may remember, Odysseus had to be tied to the mast so that unearthly beckoning wouldn’t lure him to his death. Lovely as the music is,   it eventually becomes frustrating, even agonizing. The proverbial Beethoven ending of one of those world-class symphonies can become the Chinese water torture as it goes on and on and on and on and on. And while I can sometimes influence the playlist with a nudge of the mind, I don’t get to choose it. I’ve had to endure “My Grandfather’s Clock” and “Turkey in the Straw” over and over and over. And the most intractable moment is every night when my head hits the pillow and the music won't shut up.  

For many months after the MH started, I heard it nonstop throughout my waking hours. Then I started getting periods of respite. It was less intrusive if I didn't treat it as a concert, however tempting. Eventually, my neurologist started prescribing small amounts of scary medications. The neuroleptics, meant for schizophrenics (no, I am not now and never have been), didn’t work, but Aricept, for dementia patients, is beginning to.

So now, I no longer get world-class free entertainment, but only occasional tinny humming. On the other hand, because I don't have dementia, the Aricept doesn't have to fix reality for me. Instead, it's straightening out my unconscious. As a result, I'm having excessively coherent dreams. My husband says I'm making speeches all night long. When I step off a ledge, I wake to find myself with my feet on the floor. There's only the thinnest veil between dream and reality.

But I'm not complaining. I was afraid I'd never have a moment free from music I couldn't control for the rest of my life. In general, I still appreciate music. But please don't invite me to a concert any time soon.              


  1. This is fascinating, Liz. I frequently hear music from all genres and periods of my life, too, but not constantly as you do. I didn't know it was a recognized condition or there was a name for it.

    From time to time, show tunes or classical music run through my head. I usually recognize it, but don't always know from where. Maybe I heard it in school when we still listened to stuff for what might be called "Music Appreciation" back in elementary grades, and often because my parents played it. Swing, older pop, show tunes...

    More often, it seems to be when I'm working on a story and background music or a possible title starts sinking in. If it's a song title, which it often is, that song sticks with me for a day or two. Other times, I don't know what triggers it.

    I've heard or played music most of my life. My uncle was an excellent pianist and I wanted to play piano. I still do. I studied violin for about a year and a half in fifth-sixth grade and have played guitar since the mid-60s. I rarely if ever play music while I'm writing, but often hear it anyway, as that background music I mentioned above. It might be jazz or baroque or blues or rock, but it always fits the mood of what I'm writing.

    Do you think there's any grant money we could free up for a study? ;-)

  2. The things our brains can conjure. I have a soundtrack, myself - but so far, I have some control over it and can shut it up. The thing I can't shut up is the tinnitus. Oh, well. Meanwhile, what drives me nuts is when I dream that I'm waking up from a dream and later find out that I'm just in another dream. Yes, there is only the thinnest veil between dreams and reality.

  3. Steve, hearing it IN your head is not the same thing and is much more common, especially for musicians. MH, like all hallucinations, is external. Mine seem to come from next to me ear (or ears, in stereo, sometimes) or from an external stimulus, eg a humming fan, the water of a shower, traffic in the street. One subject in the literature said "like a radio playing," and that rang true for me—sometimes. I've been trying to get my neurologist and/or ear doc to write a paper with me, but I can't light a fire under either of them, though I know I'm the most interesting and articulate MH patient they (or probably anyone) have ever had. Grant money? Ha!

  4. Eve, I have tinnitus too, and I blame it on the same migraine meds that we think may have triggered the MH, though in fact both may have been due to partial hearing loss, itself due to aging, which none of us can do anything about. When I yearn to hear true silence again, I try to remember that the rushing noise of my tinnitus is better than 24-hours of non-stop "Turkey in the Straw."

  5. Oh, man. Elizabeth, this is something to think about. Hope you are OK in the long run.

  6. Thanks, O'Neil. As I keep telling myself, it could be worse! ;)

  7. Liz, I found your article riveting. I could well believe how horrible it would be, your favorite pieces torturing you, à la Clockwork Orange. Too much of anything you love can turn awful.

  8. Liz, if we were putting together what might be a spy or medical thriller, it occurs to me there's a way to induce such an effect. Considering the revelations this week about microwaves in Cuba, China, and Russia causing embassy personnel hallucinations and illness, it could happen.

    In the days of old-time radio, station wattages of 100,000, 250,000, 500,000, and a million watts were common. Mexico's million watt X border stations blanketed North and Central America. Under the right weather conditions, they could be heard on the other side of the planet.

    WLW Cincinnati was the US's strongest station at a half million watts and could be heard coast to coast in the US and Canada. What might be significant is that stations of this wattage could be heard without radios. People could pick up WLW in their farm fences, their dentures, and the silverware in the dining room. But many people, especially women, could hear the station in their heads.

    I hadn't thought of it until now, but women have more iron particles in their brains. Say our fictional spy agency tunes their mythical radio transmitter to the resonance frequency of the iron particles, and voil√°, induced music (or more likely ads for soap powders).

    The US FCC forerunner eventually capped the maximum power of transmitters to 50,000 watts, knocking WLW down to a tenth its size. The Mexico border stations continued broadcasting at a million watts much longer.

    What a thriller your knowledge and experience could make!

    But I'm glad your music switches off at times. That has to come a great relief.

  9. Not IN the head, Leigh—outside the head, outside the head. In fact, more women than men, and older women at that are said in the literature to get MH—but then there are all those young guys who can't turn off the Super Mario when they turn it off. Hmm...


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