Musical ear syndrome: when the brain creates music from nothing

Hearing ghost music may seem like more of a gift than a disorder, but there is a clinical name for it: musical ear syndrome.

Musical ear syndrome (MES) is the term used to describe the way some people hear music where it doesn’t exist. The sounds do not fall under the category of debilitating tinnitus. Some psychiatric disorders can cause auditory hallucinations of various types, but people with SEM regularly hear music, chanting, or chanting.

  • Sounds can be vague, as if coming from another room.
  • There may or may not be an objective source for the sound – common background noises like a fan or air conditioner may set it on, or there may be no stimulus at all.
  • What their brain experiences, anyway, is the music or the voice.

Essentially, their brain changes the sound they actually hear, such as the hum of a radiator or frequently passing trains, and converts it into music.

The perception of models

How can this happen? It’s actually an extension of how the brain normally processes sound. The human brain is hardwired to recognize patterns. This is how we are able to interpret all sensory inputs, not just auditory data.

  • This is how babies sort the sounds they hear to recognize patterns and repeat them, as part of language learning.
  • The brain’s ability to recognize patterns does not distinguish between specific uses, such as language – it simply notes the pattern.
  • To speed up decision-making, your brain will often force perceived data to follow patterns it already knows.

It is, in essence, the root of MES. The brain goes further by interpreting and experiencing data like music.

  • Apophenia is where the brain perceives pseudo-patterns in random data;
  • Pareidolia is where the brain perceives a pattern that does not specifically exist in audio or visual data.

Lifelong support

SEM is quite common and sometimes goes hand in hand with other forms of hearing loss, but can be experienced on its own. On an online forum discussing the issue, a poster commented on their experience.

“I heard faint voices – whispering, conversing, singing or chanting! It looked like a crowded room, full of people at a party in a remote room somewhere in the building. After a while I came to enjoy the sound, as they seemed to be having fun at the “party”, and it helped me fall asleep at night.

The power of suggestion

Researchers from Lafayette College published an article on auditory pareidolia in The Journal of Cognitive Psychology in 2015. Their article indicates that MES can be triggered or improved by psychological priming.

Specifically, they looked at the concept in the context of reality TV shows about paranormal phenomena, where sounds are recorded, and there is already an underlying assumption that these noises represent some kind of spiritual communication. The participants, in other words, were ready to hear something important in the white noise.

“Recent research has suggested that people who have paranormal beliefs may be more sensitive to certain perceptual illusions,” the researchers noted.

“Pareidolia is the tendency to perceive meaningful shapes in configurations suggestive of ambiguous stimuli. Common examples of pareidolia include the perception of faces in nature (such as in patterns of clouds or knots on trees) or in man-made objects (for example, grounded electrical outlets at United States seems to have a pair of eyes and a mouth, ”they explain.

While this may seem generally innocuous, however, this power of suggestion can turn into a volatile hot button.

In 2008, the manufacturers of a Fisher Price Doll had to pull the Little Mommy Cuddle ‘n Coo toy because more and more people became convinced that they had heard her say “Islam is the light” in what was supposed to be an unintelligible baby noise. Others have claimed to have heard “Satan is king”.

The toy was withdrawn from sale the same year it was released.


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Latest articles by Anya Wassenberg (see everything)
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