Hearing music that isn’t there

You’ve probably been tormented by a catchy song playing over and over in your head. Spare a thought then for those people for whom this phenomenon is taken to the next level: the song or songs sound real and they play round the clock. They have what’s called ‘musical hallucinosis’.

Besides hearing music that isn’t there, such people often have no other psychological complaints. Now Ramon Mocellin and colleagues have described three typical cases and proposed a tentative neurobiological account of why the condition occurs.

Case one was an 82-year-old patient who lived in a remote farm house. She reported loud music to the police and even sent her husband driving round the neighbourhood looking for the source. She eventually realised the music was a ‘trick of her imagination’. Apart from deafness, the woman had no other neurological or psychiatric abnormalities.

Case two was a 62-year-old surfer. He heard the opening bars of Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child for six months, when there was really no sound there. This man had mild deafness and smoked cannabis but otherwise had no other relevant medical history.

The last case, a 78-year-old, was profoundly deaf, had Alzheimer’s disease and lived in a care home. He heard hymns and songs that were popular in the 1940s and 50s. Although he had cognitive impairments associated with dementia, he had no other psychotic symptoms besides hearing music that wasn’t there.

Ramon Mocellin and his colleagues explained that people with musical hallucinosis generally realise that their auditory experiences are a trick of the mind, thus distinguishing their symptoms from the hallucinations experienced by people with psychosis, who generally believe their unusual perceptions are real.

As demonstrated by the above cases, musical hallucinosis is often associated with deafness and Mocellin’s team think the condition may reflect the spontaneous, aberrant firing of those brain cells whose job is to process music, if there were any to be heard. Higher brain levels then seek to make sense of this spontaneous firing, often drawing on musical memories in the process – hence the common experience of perceiving music from previous eras.

Link to article on musical hallucinosis published in The Sunday Telegraph in 2004.
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Mocellin, R., Walterfang, M., Velakoulis, D. (2008). Musical hallucinosis: case reports and possible neurobiological models. Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 20(2), 91-95. DOI: 10.1111/j.1601-5215.2007.00255.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

further reading
The first recording of hallucinated music

79 thoughts on “Hearing music that isn’t there”

  1. i have had an angelic chior going on for 10 days now..non stop,some songs i know like amazing grace, silent night,but mostly have never heard them ever….the weird thing is although i cant turn it off i can control it and bring in different harmonies or maybe a soprano i can also play it with my fingers like a piano scale and if i touch some area in my body or face it produces a note…its freaking me out….i am 42 and a bit deaf, but up until now thought i was quite sane

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  2. I have Lyme Disease and from the symptoms I have it has affected the frontal lobe of my brain (so the doctors tell me!) I often hear sounds – sometimes like people talking in another room but not discernable ; or like a radio playing at a very low volume and not entirely tuned in, but most often melodic tones – not really songs or singing, but definitely pleasing

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  3. I am 37 and often hear 1 or 2 individual strikes of what sounds like a bongo or congo drum as I try to fall asleep. It is clearly sounding from within a few feet of me. I have checked with neighbours to confirm they do not own any drums of this nature or otherwise. It happens in different locations when I am away from home too and is very clear.

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  4. Record the songs in the morning if you remember them. Sing them into a recorder on your phone or whatever. Capture it. See if the universe is giving you gifts or chucking you bricks. Is there something new there? If you hear lyrics then google them, see if its an exisitng song. Maybe u got a gift… a gift is just a hassle if you don't try and put it to use. You'll stop worrying and just be excited about the next time it happens if you see it this way.

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  5. I too am suffering from this, I am 33 yo male, married. Recently since suffering from lack of Potassium, have begun hearing music playing from my air conditioner. No where else just there. I thought it was my friends or wife playing a trick on me, but nope they all think that I am hearing things. Now that my potassium problem is fixed, this is still continuing. Is there a way that this can be fixed?

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  6. I am 32 years old and I hear it too and the music is not always the same every night and changes… and it's not the same tune over and over again. Also it's very pretty music. However it's music that is VERY complex with many instruments… some even were as if I had never heard of before.

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  7. You were probably unconsciously humming the tune, your friend heard it and began humming it. People often ask me if I know I am humming. I do know, but because they have mentioned it I assume they are annoyed so I stop.

    I have also heard music in my head that I am not purposely hearing. If this were my biggest problem I would be one happy camper.

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  8. I am 55 years old I don't have a hearing problem never had any head injuries Im not bipolor manic or any thing else but I have been hearing music in my head for years , Its not a catchy tune that I had heard earlier its every thing from operas to show tunes to modern music, I can make out if its male or female but I can never make out the words or identify the songs , what I do know is it happens around a motor, like a fan or the motor from a fridge. If I turn the fan off the music goes away, So you might want to check that out, why a motor may set of music in ones head is something I haven't figured out yet , I mean Ive thought of the fillings in my teeth to the way my brain is set up Im no doctor or expert but theres some reason Im picking up music Ive never heard before, that s my take on it so far

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  9. I hear it to,like a stereo is on with high quality speakers like Bose. You can hear so many instaments,some times words.
    I believe Mozart had the same problem. He fortunately was able to put it on paper for all to hear what he did when the Angels played for him.

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  10. i was just sitting with my family and i randomly started to hear motzart music. it was so loud i thought it was coming from right beside me. it was one of his piano songs. i told my family and they listened and heard nothing. i am not lying and i swear it was not a hallucination!!!

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  11. I've been hearing music in my head for years – the most amazing choir's. Now it comes straight from my heart. I can also silently asking for something more uplifting). It is a Spiritual Blessing – not covered in medical text books.

    Lately, the music has been very vibey and makes me want to dance and laugh for joy. Many great composers agreed that their music came from God directly. I believe all is good with those that hear like this.

    It is an increase in our ability to connect to Universal source and energy. It's Divine Inspiration and communication and I love it! I find it is loudest when I'm close to water, like having a shower or after a glass.

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  12. to the original reply, both my wife and I hear the music at night, even walked around house looking for it, now my daughter is hearing it too and it is affecting her sleep. we did not have white noise machines on when we heard it, she does, and is afraid to turn them off now.

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  13. Im 27 i not only can hear full instrumental melody (no singing) inside my head but also i can control it (not entirely). i hear it very rarely and only when im laying at late night preparing to sleep. I only heard brand new ones. Unfornutely im not talented and i cannot write it down anyhow, to bad, some of them were awesome.

    I do not understand why you people find it as a problem, disease,, for me its like a gift wich makes me more like supernatural “melodyman” ..hmm.. i must create a superhero suit 🙂

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  14. Love this answer, alot of these answers are great, this was especially inspiring and upbeat , i thank you.
    I have heard the music a few times, i have also had numerous psychic experiences that proved true..so i do think theres a connection with attunement. i have heard the music threes times that i remember once in a dream an old doors record spinning an playing a song that “was never released” another time after improvising on my harmonica, a few hours later in the day i heard the most beautiful classical violin music in my head but faintly .. This morning it happened again , before i fell asleep i was talking to myself , philosophizing about life and existence (something i like to do that often brings answers) i was thinking in my head why i/we think in language and in our familiar voice, i was thinking about the nature of thought and the symbols (words) we use to communicate to ourselves and others..then i fell asleep, a little while later i woke up, eyes closed but conscious, to the sound of 20's jazz.. brilliant music , multiple instruments and variations also my head was tingling as it was playing 🙂

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  15. my daughter is 12 and is saying she is hearing music that's not there. I am having other issues with her. all of the people she is friends with are depressed, self harming schitsophrenic bi polar and I just don't know if its their influence or real, any ideas…at my wits end mum

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  16. I hear music at night all the time, usually just before I fall asleep. 🙂 It used to scare me, I thought I had a mental illness because nobody else could hear it. But I've learned to enjoy what my head plays to me!
    Usually my mind composes something original that I at least have no conscious memory of hearing. I love what my brain comes up with. I hear and make new songs from so many styles: Jazz, Classic, Rock, County, Pop, Old 30s music, strange drum dances. I don't know where it comes from, I'm not very creative and I have no Musical talent. If I did, I think they would be good songs lol!

    I think it's worth noting for people that are worried that there is a phenomena called hypnopompic images that can cause visual and audio hallucinations.This could be responsible for music happening when falling asleep.

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  17. If you are hearing music around the time you wake up or go to sleep, it is probably Hypnopompic Images (fall asleep) or Hypnogogic Images (wake up).

    A lot of people fall asleep with a piece of music going through their head and they may also wake up hearing music.

    HG and HP images are hallucinations that appear when the mind is in differing stages of the sleep cycle. An example of a HG image would be if you were having a nightmare and you woke up and still saw some part (monster, ghost, etc) of your dream while you were awake that fades seconds later.
    These hallucinations can be visual, you can hear, smell them, or feel them.

    I've had HP and HG images frequently my whole life, and I compose songs before bed (HP) and sometimes I'll wake up to a cheetah on my ceiling (HG).

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  18. When I first lay in bed at night with my eyes closed, the most fantastic music comes to my mind. Usually, I am performing a song with a very large band playing all types of instruments. I am amazed at how great both lyrics and music are and wish to God I could remember them. I open my eyes and I cannot remember anything. If I could, I would be one of the most accomplished song writers of all time. 🙂

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  19. I have this also. I would very much have the gift while awake. How is it that some people are given the gift while conscious?

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  20. I hear like a radeo station, the talking and all but its really low. Sometimes I dont know what its playing but, yet I still know its a song. The quieter, the louder the station, to the point of annoyance. ITS DRIVING ME NUTS I cannot make it stop only drown it out. Is there anyone with answers to this?

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  21. My husband passed away the end of July. About the first of October I started hearing music and tore up the house lookin for it . Then got snowed in a week and heard music all day and nite. Snow thawed , I went to town and heard it all the way to town. Then I knew it was in my head. I am 79 partially deaf, and isolated. Drs say get a brain scan but I think it is harmless. Read Oliver Sacs book Musicophilia. Sometimes the music is very inventive like a sad song played with trumpets…Stand By Me for instance. Oliver Sacs is a genius. Read his book.

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  22. This happens to me all the time. I started recording the melodies. My friend is a composer and is writing them for me with the instruments I've described. I didn't know the name of some of them and can't read music. Keep a phone by your bed to record the melodies. I believe we all have latent abilities that seek expression.

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  23. Today I was walking home and I heard 5-10 seconds of Carry on My Wayward Son. It was very faint and tinny. I'm in South Korea, so it's even weirder.

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