Can't get a tune out of your head? Tina had that for 30 YEARS... only to discover that the cure is surprisingly simple

By Jenny Hudson


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'It's as if the choir is in the room with you,' said Tina Lannin

'It's as if the choir is in the room with you,' said Tina Lannin

The tune which pops into your head and won’t go away is maddening enough — but imagine if the music in your head sounded as real as if the musicians were sitting beside you.

Even worse, if the music was discordant, unrecognisable as a tune.

‘It’s as if the choir is in the room with you and you have no means of making them stop,’ says Tina Lannin, a 42-year-old from London who suffered from this for nearly 30 years.

‘One night, I was kept awake by what sounded like a drunken choir singing Away In A Manger.

‘Sometimes it was a rock concert, and sometimes classical music or opera.

'At times there were singers, and at other times, just instruments. But it never sounded right.

'Although it’s music, it’s not harmonious or structured, and usually I couldn’t recognise what it was.’

Tina is describing a surprisingly common condition, musical ear syndrome.

It is a form of tinnitus, a condition that affects one in ten of us.

But while tinnitus is usually a buzzing, ringing or whistling sound in the ear, without any obvious source, in some people it takes the form of phantom music.

Around 90 per cent of those with the condition develop it as a result of hearing loss, says Tim Griffiths, professor of cognitive neurology at Newcastle University.


Huw Cooper, consultant audiologist at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, says: ‘We see people every week who report hearing phantom music, and it’s something that may be under-reported.

‘This is because people are familiar with tinnitus as banging or ringing, but when they hear music, they don’t think of tinnitus. Instead, they worry they are going mad.’

Brain scans show they are not. In fact, their brain activity during these hallucinations is very similar to people who are listening to actual music.

However, with musical hallucinations, there is no activity in the primary auditory cortex — the area close to the ear where sound signals are normally received and then sent further into the brain to be processed, explains Professor Griffiths.

‘If someone is deaf or loses their hearing, the part of the brain that processes sound signals is deprived of stimulation.

'In the absence of sound, the brain fills in the gaps, as it were, by turning to musical memory for stimulation.’

'Sometimes I would hear buzzing and banging, but frequently it was musical,' said Tina, who is now a professional lip-reader

'Sometimes I would hear buzzing and banging, but frequently it was musical,' said Tina, who is now a professional lip-reader

Usually, in musical hallucinations, people hear carols and hymns, says Dr Richard McCollum, a psychiatrist at Devon Partnership NHS Trust, who recently ran an online study involving more than 500 sufferers.

Intriguingly, the American respondents to the survey typically heard their national anthem.

'Memories laid down early in life with great frequency tend to be most deeply embedded in the subconscious,’ explains Dr McCollum.

‘It is likely to be the case that in America, the national anthem is more commonly heard, whereas for people in the UK, their deeply embedded musical memories tend to be childhood hymns and carols.’

He found musical hallucinations tend to start suddenly and intensely.

‘A typical story is the couple going to bed at night and one saying: “Can you turn off that music, please?” While the other asks: “What music?” ’

Musical hallucinations are different from ‘ear worms’ — the songs, TV theme tunes and jingles that get inside our heads and play repeatedly. 

Ear worms, which affect nine out of ten of us at least once, are caused when the parts of the brain responsible for processing sound are persistently activated, for example by a catchy tune heard repeatedly on the radio, says Professor Griffiths.

In a musical hallucination, there is also persistent activity, but this takes place within the brain, rather than being triggered by external sound.

Another difference lies in the way they are perceived.

‘People with musical hallucinations initially think what they hear is real. If you have an “ear worm”, you don’t think it is real,’ says Professor Griffiths.

‘If you have an ear worm, it can seem very persistent and difficult to stop, but your brain will still receive lots of other signals through the auditory complex and this will eventually “win” over your worm.’

Tinnitus is a condition that affects one in ten of us

Tinnitus is a condition that affects one in ten of us

Hearing loss that triggers musical hallucinations can be moderate or severe, according to Professor Griffiths’s research.

In some cases, patients lost their hearing suddenly — for example, after a head injury.

Others had suffered very gradual age-related loss of hearing, although those with the most severe hearing loss seem more likely to develop musical hallucinations.

Tina was born prematurely, and her hearing was profoundly damaged by the noise of the incubator where she spent her first three months.

By the age of ten she developed tinnitus.

‘Sometimes I would hear buzzing and banging, but frequently it was musical,’ says Tina, who is now a professional lip-reader.

‘It could be a bit creepy. I could tell that inside my head, I was making a rough copy of songs I’d heard before.

'But I always knew it was a part of my tinnitus.’

Why some people develop musical hallucinations after hearing loss, and many don’t, is not clear.

Professor Griffiths believes there may be other risk factors, notably high blood pressure and its effect on the brain.

The theory is  this might cause tiny strokes reducing the sound information going to the auditory cortex.

A German study of 11 stroke patients who developed musical hallucinations showed damage to the part of the brain involved in processing sound.

Some people with epilepsy can suffer musical ear syndrome, too, just before an attack (just as perceptions, such as sense of taste, smell or hearing can change).

Brain tumours may also trigger musical hallucinations.

Tina’s hallucinations became increasingly difficult to live with.

‘I became stressed and exhausted trying to concentrate on what people were saying to me with all the background noise and music going on.’

Tina wore a hearing aid, but when she asked for help, no one seemed interested.

‘I developed my own way of coping,’ says Tina.

‘I learnt that if the music was really annoying, although I couldn’t stop it, if I concentrated hard on a song I liked better, I could change the music.’

Like Tina, most sufferers receive little help.

Indeed, Dr McCollum’s study found that only 16 per cent of people report having treatment, and just 3 per cent said their treatment was effective.

‘The one treatment known to be effective is increasing the amount of external auditory stimulation.

‘This might be something simple, such as having the radio on more often and avoiding long periods of silence,’ explains Dr McCollum.

‘And if someone has musical ear syndrome after hearing loss, it is important to maximise their hearing capacity.’

This proved the key for Tina, whose musical hallucinations finally stopped two years ago after she had a cochlear implant in her right ear.

A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted electronic hearing device.

It bypasses the damaged sections of the ear and directly stimulates the auditory nerves (a standard hearing aid amplifies sound).

The effect was profound — not only on Tina’s ability to hear but also for her musical hallucinations.

Being close to normal hearing capacity means the over-activity in the auditory network in her brain is kept in check by sound signals flowing from the outside world.

‘About four days after the implant was fitted, I woke up to complete silence,’ she says.

‘That was a joy to me, and something I had never experienced before.’

A year later, Tina had a second cochlear implant fitted in her left ear.

‘Now my musical hallucinations have gone completely. I sometimes get a bit of buzzing or banging tinnitus, but it is at a much lower noise level.

‘I’ve always loved music, and still do. Now I love piano, particularly Mozart and Beethoven.

'It is much clearer than the music I had in my head, and is a different, enjoyable thing.’

VIDEO: William Shatner speaks on his tinnitus:

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The comments below have not been moderated.

i've had tinnitus since i can remeber, when i was a child i had so many ear operation's to try and improve it. but nothing did or has'nt worked. im still in the same situation.

Click to rate     Rating   8

When I was a boy I used to hear morse code at night time...Weird or what... - Martin UK , Wiltshire, United Kingdom, 12/12/2012 09:06..............I've experienced that too in the past. Also I used to live about 3 miles from an army range and I sometimes picked up their radio transmissions.......... very weird indeed.

Click to rate     Rating   7

Your comments:My uncle had Meniere's disease and tinnitus, and ended up having to go to the doctor while on holiday in France. He had learned that he suffered attacks of vertigo if he looked up, so was very careful not to while driving. The doctor he saw cured it by him lying down on a couch, and him performing a series of head movements. He said he nearly passed out during the movements they were so painful, but he's not had a problem since that day. He's now 90 and quite deaf, and is very grateful to that French doctor who treated him well over 20 years ago.

Click to rate     Rating   16

When I was a boy I used to hear morse code at night time...Weird or what...

Click to rate     Rating   11

Often hear low rumbling, like a diesel engine is running outside. It can get very loud, but you go outside, and there's nothing there.

Click to rate     Rating   14

I have just purchased a CD of whale sounds for a friend with tinnitus, and she says that the sounds help her and sooths the tinnitus.

Click to rate     Rating   21

How is a cochlear implant a 'surprisingly simple cure'? That's a bit misleading isn't it...

Click to rate     Rating   112

I have tinnitus. The world is never silent for me. I have got used to it - I don't notice it during the day an awful lot but it's at night when i go to bed or if I am sitting in a quiet room on my own. There is a constant rushing sound as if there is a huge waterfall in the distance. Sometimes I get bells and whistling noises. As to the songs playing over and over in my head, sometimes I wake up in the morning with a song repeating itself over and over. I know it's in my brain and usually once I get involved in other things during the day, it goes away. sometimes it helps to actually sing it out loud, or sing a different song!

Click to rate     Rating   40

I was relieved to discover this whilst researching 'olfactory hallucination in dementia' for a relative. I think age-onset hearing reduction causes us to 'miss' sounds that we used to recognise...the brain then automatically 'fills in' the missing sounds with a pattern it already knows. It virtually re-creates a familiar sound from the remaining background sounds that we hear. So if you are in the garden hearing all the familiar local backgroud noises (traffic/birds/mowers,etc...) your brain will alway re-create that same tune form the noises you pick out....It's not science, I know, but it makes sense. The brain is an amazing piece of euipment...

Click to rate     Rating   11

"Ear worm"! Ah, there's a name for this!! I've had tinnitus and ear worms for decades. They are caused by mercury. I had mercury poisoning from my dental amalgams. At the height of my poisoning, my ears went from ringing twice a year to twice a day. (And it was the other ear from the damaged one.) I am taking chlorella to remove the mercury, and whenever I slack off, my ears would start ringing again. Take a couple of tabs and they go away in about 2 hours. If I don't, the repetitive thoughts would start. This could be a few words, a name or a few bars of music. There was a time when my stomach grew intolerant to chlorella and I didn't take it for two weeks. This tune played itself over and over, several times a minute, all my waking hours for two weeks. Drove me bananas. I wonder if schizophrenic people don't just have acute heavy metal poisoning. And as soon as I took chlorella, it subsided. It may be caused by brain damage - that's what mercury does - it kills brain cells!!

Click to rate     Rating   4

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