Phantom Orchestra

I’ve had a strange, unique, and interesting experience for several years. I didn’t tell anyone–not even EJ–until a month or so ago because it just sounded too weird. After I told EJ, he couldn’t figure out why it was happening any more than I could. Then a few days ago, EJ happened to see people commenting at FB that they had experienced the same sort of phenomenon. It never occurred to me until then that other people had the same sort of experience. I grew curious so I researched it last night and found that thousands of people also experience the phenomenon. Researchers don’t know the exact number because most people never tell a soul about it because it sounds crazy. And, no, I’m not crazy.

Are you intrigued?

This is what I experience: Occasionally, when I lay in bed, I hear music that only I can hear. It sounds like an orchestra playing beautiful classical music. Occasionally the orchestra is accompanied by what almost sounds like an angelic choir singing.

Weird, huh?

I’ve tried to figure out the source. I have considered many theories–like maybe sound vibrations from a fan or something hit my ear in such a way that it sounds like music. Or maybe I only imagine that it sounds like an orchestra. However, it sounds so real. And I’ve heard it whether a fan is on or off, when everything about my environment is the same or when it has changed, and I’ve heard it at our old house and at our new house. I hear it even if I put a pillow over my head. I can hear it if I turn my head, change my position, and a few times even when I sat up in bed. Sometimes I hear it for several nights in a row. Other times I don’t hear it for several weeks or months. Sometimes the music is rather faint, but sometimes it’s loud enough that I look around for a radio that might have been left on.

I discovered that the phenomenon is called “Musical Ear Syndrome.” It’s an audio hallucination. I read several articles about it including this one, this one, and this one. I read that

“When you get a musical hallucination it feels as if it’s real, it feels as if there’s a record player playing it or the artist is in the room or in the next-door room. As far as you’re concerned probably everyone else ought to be able to hear it as well so it’s very, very real.”

I also read:

“According to Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, hallucinations are the apparent, often strong,subjective perception of an object or event when no such stimulus or situation is present.” More simply put, hallucinations are where your brain perceives that something is happening even though your five senses have not received any direct stimulus.

Hallucinations may be visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smelling), gustatory (tasting) or tactile (feeling). Therefore, hallucinations are simply seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or feeling sights, sounds, odors, tastes, or sensations that no one else around you perceives.

Although hallucinations may occur with any of the five senses, auditory hallucinations are by far the most common kind of hallucination. A person is hearing auditory hallucinations when he or she hear noises, music, sounds or voices that no one else hears because these phantom sounds are generated in the person’s brain, not externally.

…Audio hallucinations comprise a wide range of sounds, ranging from simple to complex. Simple sounds are single, unmodulated sounds such as the various tinnitus sounds (ringing, roaring, buzzing, hissing, rumbling, etc.) millions of people hear. In fact, tinnitus is the most common kind of auditory hallucination.

In contrast, complex sounds include multiple, modulated sounds such as tunes, singing, music and voices. These are the kinds of sounds that people have traditionally considered auditory hallucinations. Many people have mistakenly called these sounds “musical tinnitus.”

Depending on their clarity, phantom sounds may be either “unformed” or “formed.” Unformed auditory hallucinations consist of hearing distorted music, sounds, or voices. These sounds are vague, “fuzzy” and indistinct. For example, Jane described her unformed auditory hallucinations as “like the wind blowing, but with a musical quality, as if someone off in the distance was singing without words.” Rachel explains, “The words are never distinct—it’s like they are several rooms away.” Sarah relates, “I sometimes hear phantom “radio broadcasts” that I can’t quite make out.”

In contrast, formed auditory hallucinations are where speech, music or singing is so clear and recognizable that people hearing it can identify the various voices and musical instruments. For example, James explains, “For the past 3 to 4 months I have had the most calming and repetitive choruses and wind ensembles, usually led by a bass sax and a baritone playing and singing in a low octave, the older Christian hymns and a few oldies from the forties such as, Near the Cross, Amazing Grace, His Eye Is on the Sparrow and The Star Spangled Banner.”

The article said that “As a matter of interest, quite often MES sounds have a seasonal quality—thus people “hear” Christmas carols during the winter season and The Star Spangled Banner around the 4th of July. Incidentally, while Americans often hear The Star Spangled Banner, Canadians typically hear God Save the Queen or Oh Canada, and Australians often hear Waltzing Matilda!”

I never hear music that I recognize. I usually hear an orchestra, but a few days ago I heard a harpsicord. Occasionally the orchestra is accompanied by a choir, but it’s more like vocalizing–there are no distinct words.

Musical Ear Syndrome is not a new phenomenon. Composer Robert Schumann heard auditory hallucinations towards the end of his life. At night, he heard musical notes and believed that he heard an angelic choir singing to him. He also heard the music of Beethoven and Schubert. He jotted down the music in February, 1854 and called it the Theme (WoO, 1854) or Theme from Ghost Variations. He said he was taking dictation from Schubert’s ghost. You can find versions at Youtube, including this one.

I have no musical talent so I can’t recreate the music I hear, but I searched for similar sounding music at Youtube and the best I could find was that when the music is accompanied by a choir, it sounds sort of, kind of, a little bit like this:

I think all this is fascinating. I told JJ about it last night for the first time and I played him the video above to demonstrate what it sort of sounded like. He thought it was really weird. “Can you have it treated?” he asked. I told him that I didn’t think it was treatable but “Are you kidding? I hear beautiful music! It’s not intrusive. Why would I want to get rid of it? It’s like a super power!” In fact, one night I couldn’t sleep and then I heard the music. I focused on it and it lulled me peacefully to sleep.

By the way, some people can feel, taste, and or hear color. There is a 20-year-old junior at the University of Maine who has synesthesia, a rare neurological condition in which two or more of the senses entwine. Numbers and letters, sensations and emotions, days and months are all associated with colors for Carey. She can also taste them, and hear them.

I think the brain is very powerful and very interesting.

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8 Comments on “Phantom Orchestra

  1. This I don’t know about but it sounds beautiful I have already my whole life synesthesia . And I thought everybody had that. It is just part of me. ❤

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  2. Hi TJ,
    I just entered a tag for Musical Ear Syndrome, and up came your post. As I am writing, I am listening to Magnificat on the “MES channel” as I have come to call it. The music is coming from a direction to my right, behind me a bit. The first time I had this weird music experience was in the middle of a bad ear infection about a year ago. I had been given a couple different medications trying to clear it up, the last one being one that is also used for eyes. I woke up in the middle of the night and heard music…a string orchestra it sounded like. It was quite loud, and I looked out my window to see if something was going on outside. I checked the rest of the house to see if anyone had a radio on. Finally I decided it was somehow tinnitus related and managed to go back to sleep. The next morning, it was still there. I found that when I was engaged with other peoople in conversation or was absorbed in reading or a movie or whatnot, it went away.

    but it always comes back, and has not gone away. I mentioned it to my primary doctor and the ENT and also an audiologist. The first two just kind of brushed it off. The audiologist said it was rare but “normal” and I could expect it to clear up when the infection was completely out of my system (has not>)

    It is true that it seasonal themes. It also seems to pick old favorites from my memory bank. I had been thinking about the Magnificat that we sang in high school because I just joined a choir. I can’t make it stop but I can make it change tunes. IIt sometimes sounds like chorus music, and sometimes like chanting.

    From what I have read,, it is typically directional sound,, is fairly common in older people (I am almost 70). Has been thought to be caused by infection or medication, and possibly related to depression or isolation.

    Well kind of a big answer, but I was delighted to share with someone who has this similar experience. Now I will get back to setting up my blog (which is not all about MES but I will probably talk about it sometime on the blog.

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    • Well, Pilgrimstill, and thank you so much for sharing! I found your description to be very interesting. I first learned about Musical Ear Syndrome at the time I wrote this post. You are the first person I have talked to who has experienced this. At this point, I can’t change the music I hear, and it’s nothing I recognize. It can be loud enough that I think a radio is on, but not so loud that it affects my life. I only hear it occasionally and I haven’t heard it in a while. I always think it’s interesting when I hear it, especially now that I know what it is. I think our bodies are very fascinating in the odd things they do.

      Good luck on setting up your blog!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, bodies and brains are very interesting. By the way, I forgot to mention in my previous comment that I had almost completely lost my hearing when I had that infection last year. The audiologist said that (at least theory was) that the brain was trying to compensate for sound that the ear was not hearing.

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