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. what happens when 2 people hear the same music at the same time and there is nothing playing

  2. Im 30 years old, not hard of hearing. I personnally love my quiet enviroments. I love to hear the music my mind makes up when I sit and relax. The only thing is, I wanted to know if others have similar effects.. That you just start to hear music you have never heard before play as if you are really there, but nothing is on or nothing is really there doing the music.

  3. I used to hear things when I was younger… I haven't for a couple years now at least. I'm 22 now. I used to hear things like choirs, classical music, tribal drum beats, etc. It was almost always while I was trying to sleep at night. Why would a young person with no hearing or mental illness hear things?

  4. I used to love to fall asleep to the sounds of my minds music. Any instrument you can imagine. But that's also how I think; often in images or in music. As I have aged, I find myself thinking in English. It's neither as fun nor as beautiful.
    Have you ever heard of synesthesia? It's the crossing of senses. When we are born, all of our senses are connected; with time, those connections are winnowed, but they remain. If you hear music, it could be part of how your are wired. It's just how you think.

  5. I'm a 23 year old female and this has been happening to me since my early childhood. It doesn't happen very often, but usually it sounds like classical music and lasts for a couple of minutes. I enjoy it, but I am curious to know if it's related to any physical or psychological disorders.

  6. Hey, it's the 23f with the classical music again: I remember thinking without language too! It was so natural, immediate, and emotional. Then came verbal English around pre-school, then later I saw written English in my mind's eye, and sometimes I think in verbal German, “feeling” the meaning of concepts I don't know the words for. When I create art, I drop language. It's kind of like meditating. I totally forgot about thinking without language but I'm so glad to be reminded!!!

  7. I am a normal woman with no hearing loss. I had an episode of West Nile Virus encephalitis three years ago, and since then I periodically hear music playing in my head that I have never heard before. Mostly classical, very melodious. The last episode was a band and lasted for about 2 minutes.

  8. As I type this, I'm hearing the battle music from Pokemon Platinum..it's been on and off for the past hour, and occasionally I hear the chime that goes along with button mashing in the game..I just got done playing for six hours straight..but still, I try and sleep and all I can do is sit there and listen to the music. And it's only in my left ear.

  9. its a gift and there is a reason for everything. i am like this too and its a message.. write it down and look at it the next day.

  10. This happened to me the other day and i said i would go and change the music, when i came back and told everyone there was no music i got some really weird looks, i explained as nicely as i could that it sounded good in my head! 23yr old male. The boats engines were loud and i am a little hard of hearing but not hugely. I was worried i was going mad.

  11. I get this sometime its usually off a song that is repetitive or that I've listen to many times,its nothing to worry about.

  12. I was driving home today from a friend's house and I heard a gorgeous classical song playing. I listened for awhile and then I tried to turn the radio up but the radio wasn't on. I was hearing the most beautiful string orchestra playing the most beautiful song… I guess in my head.

    I was beyond tired and I've been having immense stress lately so I don't know if that's what caused it. I wish I was musically talented enough to recognize the notes that were being played so I could hear it again.

  13. so im an 18 yr old female and I hear music that isnt there all the time and normally its something i havent heard, like a choir or guitar playing or just random stuff… would it be the same thing?

  14. I am an 10 yr old male and I hear music that isnt there and all the time, IT REPEATED AND REPEATED. It gave me the annoyance. When I tried to sleep, there was the music of a Old music. I think it was cascade or whatever the band name is. IT PREVENTED ME FROM SLEEPING!! Sometimes I wish that I got amnesia to forget the songs.

  15. And, there was something else to prevent this. (I don't know what side of ear that makes you hear music) Cover your left ear or just lean to left so that the left ear would be covered up. When I tried this, the song was gone and when I leaned right, I keep hearing songs in my mind. SO COVER YOUR LEFT EAR UP!. I hope this works for ya.

  16. I am 18 years old and although it hasn't happened recently, I sometimes hear choirs singing or songs I know of but in really good detail e.g. I can hear all the drum beats in the right places and the bass etc. when I have only listened to the actual song a few times or wouldn't be able to know when the drum beats etc. came if i was asked. I did have hearing problems when I was younger meaning that I had to have gromits and have a hole in my eardrum repaired. Could this be to do with it?
    This is weird as well but I can 'click' my ears almost as if you're moving a muscle and I hear a clicking in my ears, it can also happen when I swallow, does anyone else who hears music have this ability??

  17. Well, I hear music and as well as screams that was not even there. I am not deaf or having a disease of any kind. My mind or imagination just went wild that it drove me crazy. The songs that were played in my head was loud like hearing from a stereo. I can't even barely sleep at night. I tried to do techniques that would turn the songs down and some of the techniques worked but the music didn't sound real but still plays in my head.

  18. Im a 15 year old girl and i keep hearing music i listened to earlier that day and idk espically when i try to sleep its like im listening to my ipod when im not so i toss and turn for hours trying to not think about the music

  19. I am a 13 year old girl and I keep hearing this song. I've never heard it before and I feel like it's coming from the attic/loft above my room. But nobody's up there. It reminds me of the friends theme song kinda. Not really. It has drums and guitar sometimes there's a guy singer that says Yeaaa. I feel like I'm going insane.

  20. I found this article while doing some research on schizophrenia. Not trying to alarm anyone, but just trying to help. If you hear music, please go see a therapist of some sort and at least have yourself checked out. If you do have a mild case of schizophrenia, the early detection is helpful. Our dear family member was not diagnosed until 60 – we all wish she had been helped earlier.

  21. I used to have the problem of hearing a song repeated over and over – especially when trying to sleep. I have loaded relaxation music onto my IPOD and let it play all night at a volume that I can just barely hear. Haven't had a problem since I started this about 2 years ago. I really don't notice the music from my IPOD, but apparently, my brain can't think of other music while it's playing. The music that I chose is instrumental and has no strong melodies. It's been such a relief not to have the problem anymore.

  22. I do not have a hearing problem. Not that I know of at least. People tell me I don't listen. I will ask people a question and want to know the answer, but somehow have to ask them the question a few minutes later again. I always thought my memory was the problem not my hearing because when they tell me their answer I will suddenly remember. I hear music too. I thought it was real at first to because I could hear the music with my ears, but after asking people around me about the music and them telling me they don't hear it, I know that it's not actually playing. I think it's strange however because my ears are still hearing it. I don't know what this is. I have had episodes where I have heard stuff in the past. It was lots of people talking, and predictions. Tonight a song kept saying 911, it has me wondering why I even hear music at all. Would love to hear others' experiences

  23. I am a 28 year old Male who, after a pretty horrific bicycle wreck without a helmet became epileptic. It was not diagnosed until I had a seizure on my bike and wrecked it again, a few months later (now) I had another seizure this time while just sitting at my desk. The seizures I get are classified as partial complex meaning I am unconscious before during and immediately after the event. ie I remember sitting at the computer and next thing I know I am in some paramedics arms trying to bring me back to consciousness.

    Since the last seizure I have been hearing music coming directly from objects that produce white noise. For example a Journey song from the air conditioner. I know what most of you are saying about hearing it IN your head, I do that too, but this is like its coming from a radio, I can get closer to it or farther from it.

    Thoughts?

  24. I have heard chimes off and on, usually rushing over to my cell phone thinking it's gone off.

    Only creepy a few times, and only if you start thinking of voodoo metaphasical shtuff.

    Basically, if you are having these off and on, don't add any scary movies to the theatre for a while, it just feeds on itself.

    I think stress does it too. When I've been going through rough times it seems to come around a lot more!

    Cheers

  25. I am a 28 yr old female; I haven't sustained any head injuries, but I know exactly what you are talking about. Vacuum cleaners are especially potent at causing me to hear music! Other than turning on a stereo or my IPod; I have no idea how to no hear the music (unless the device can be turned off; which can't be done with the office air conditioner).

  26. Me too, I feel like I'm crazy!!. I have been hearing like the end of a meriachi band with a guy singing yeeeaaaa. It keeps repeating, then I here claps and whistles. Now tonight I hear like a female opera Singer,,,, any one else here the same?

  27. This has very low probability. Suppose both were recently heard same song number of times and they can hear the same song in their ears. But the speed of playing inside brain will be faster/unpredictable to person to person. So the line they hear may differ.

  28. Nothing to worry. You may have very good memory. You can become great artist.

  29. Well, I am glad I found this. Once a while ago, I heard marching band music off and on one day, but didn't think too much of it. I am singer and music didn't seem so strange, although marching band music is not something I would pick out to listen to. I didn't think anything of it. But yesterday, on the bus, I thought I heard cars honking in the distance and protestors shouting and blowing whistles. I had just passed the protestors (Con Ed strikers in NYC), but I knew that the sounds were in my head, I couldn't still be hearing them. Last night, though, I tried to go to sleep with the fan near my head and heard the loudest New Orleans band. It would only stop if I turned off the fan. So there must be something to the white noise that does this. On the bus, there was white noise as well. I don't have injuries or illness, but I do get migraines. I started searching the web to see what might be causing what happened to me yesterday. I am glad to see that there seem to be similar stories.

  30. Is there any current research for those that are not elderly or hard of hearing. After researching it online it seems the Dr's/Scientists think that it is related to deafness in some way. I can see the reasons behind that hypothesis but I do not fit any of the “normal” parameters for someone who hears music, and I hear it every night. I can often hear the words and can tell what the song is. It varies, like a radio. Sometimes I am so convinced that it must be a cell phone or something,I have to get up and check. It does disturb my sleep, but mostly I am fascinated and would like to learn more. If anyone knows of any on-going research please post here. Thanks

  31. Although i do not hear music when there is nothing playing, i do hear the “clicking' in my ear when i swallow, yawn etc. After doing some research iv'e learned that when you swallow your eustachian tubes open up, this allows pressure changes in the center of your ear. The “click” sound is the pressures trying to equalize.So its perfectly normal 🙂

  32. I have recently, 2 days tops, began hearing stuff, like a distant radio playing. I have been under much added stress lately, but I have definitely had much more stressful times in the past. I turned off the fan, air conditioner, etc, any white noise and it quits. I can cover my ears and it quits. It is not constant, definitely not loud, but loud enough I went searching for the source. I have very good hearing and cannot tolerate 2 dialogues at once, for example if I can hear 2 televisions going at once, even though the other is much lower volume in another room. This hearing noise, mostly music, is new. I am wondering if it could be caused by stress. I am 48F with depression managed well for years, my father had paranoid schizophrenia and I know this is not 'voices' but it did worry me enough I googled it. Not something I'd feel comfortable with in asking friend, hey, you ever hear noises that aren't really there? Odd thing is, it has quit while I was typing, lol. I have no idea but am glad it is actually a phenomenon and not the straight jacket for me type of thing.

  33. I hear music when I'm laying down, it ranges from psych rock, choir music, mariachi and classical. I have excellent hearing. For a while I would. Hear Jefferson airplanes white rabbit song and for a bit I thought it was coming through air vents. Now in a single house and I still hear it. It's good music though so no complaints. At least I don't have radio ads in my head

  34. I almost always hear symphonic/brass music when I lay down or even just close my eyes when I am tired. Sometimes it may be a worship song or mainstream song but in a more subdued tone. Are any of you musicians? I would love to talk to someone and find out more about this phenomenon. sechristmas@gmail.com

  35. I, too, would hear these sounds. Usually tinny-sounding bells, classical music, and tribal drums. And it was almost always in the mornings before school when I was much younger.

  36. i HAVE BEEN HEARING MUSIC IN MY HEAD FOR AT LEAST 25 YEARS. iT HAS GOTTEN MORE FREQUENT AND COMPLEX OVER THE YEARS. I HEAR FULL SYMPHONIES THAT I HAVE NEVER HEARD. i DON'T READ MUSIC OR PLAY AND INSTRUMENT YET I HEARD COMPLEX MUSIC IN MY MIND. mY EARS DO NOT HEAR IT. mY HEART AND SOUL HEAR IT. IT IS NOT OF THIS WORLD. i THOUGHT I WAS ALONE… SO GLAD TO SEE HOW MANY PEOPLE HEAR THE MUSIC.

  37. Im hearing dance music, with lyrics – that do not exist at all. I know my music and i have never ever heard them before. They sound awesome and can even remember them the next day.
    Since this phenomenom starting though, i have been told i twitch violently for hours, and during the day i have started to fade in and out of this 'trance' like state.
    What on earth is happening?

  38. i hear completly random music in my head along with occasionaly actual songs. i was going to ask why it might be happening until i read a bunch of these other similar stories ,but then i couldnt help but notice how many people were hearing classical music and chior music and now im wondering more about why those two kinds are so common amung so many totaly different people. also … is there any way i could make this happen more so on demand rather then hearing it only randomly.

  39. I will hear/sing a catchy tune in my head from time to time and a minute or two later my friend will humm the same tune…this hapenned to me on a few occasions with different people, first i found it was just coincidence, but it keeps happenening occasionnaly. I have no explanation.

  40. I am a 74 year old male with a hearing problem (two hearing aids.) Hearing music in my head started right after I retired about 6 years ago. I started to stay up late, seams like that's when it started to happen. While on the computer I would actually hear DJ's and couldn't figure our where it was coming from. My wife thought I was crazy. I'm getting used to it, the only time it bothers me if when it keeps repeating a portion of the music over and over again like a stuck record. My doctors have heard of it but don't understand or have knowledge of why this happens. I asked one doctor while he was checking my heart if he could put the contraption on my head and try to hear my music. He stated “will both go to the nut house.” Thanks to this artical my wife no longer thinks I'm crazy, just a little different.

  41. I am 85 years old and hear music all of the tiime. Always choir music or spiritual music. Symphonies Never drums or hippy stuff. I went through the usual thing of I am going crazy. Not true. Had a heart attack and scans and brain waves were done. Perfectly normal. I know about psychotic episodes and do not have these. Just music. Talked with a well known psychic who told me this was psychic and spirit. I do believe this. A gift of some kind. Now I enjoy the music and listen to it with no qualms. A phenomen no one can explain. Your ok and so am I.

  42. My father is 85 and pretty darn deaf. He started hearing a song in his head about six months ago and now it's constant. It disturbs him that he can't shut it off. It's a song he's known for at least 50 years, always the same one, over and over. His doctor doesn't seem worried about it, and doesn't have any idea what could be causing it.

  43. i heard the same thing last night and before sounds of some sort of music over and over happend last week to but mine come from my ears not inside my head feels like my ears have been tuned up to higher sometimes sounds like morse code to mad r what
    but its all true

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