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Hearing Phantom Sounds

Pseudo-auditory Hallucinations

© December 1999 by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.

Question: I have tinnitus all the time. Sometimes I hear what sounds like music or people singing or talking. Is this some strange kind of tinnitus?

Answer: This is a fascinating subject! What you are hearing are phantom sounds—sounds that are not really there, but are generated inside your head. There are two classes of such sounds—tinnitus and auditory hallucinations.

Tinnitus

Tinnitus is by far the most common of these phantom sounds. Here is a quote from my book on Tinnitus. "If you have tinnitus, you know what it sounds like—at least to you. For those of you who do not have tinnitus, our tinnitus may be a ringing, roaring, beating, clicking, banging, buzzing, hissing, humming, chirping, clanging, sizzling, whooshing, rumbling, whistling or dreadful shrieking noise in our ears. To some people, tinnitus sounds like rushing water, breaking glass or chain saws running."

Tinnitus may have a tonal quality, but it is always a simple sound—basically a monotone. In contrast, people with auditory hallucinations hear more complex things that sound like voices, singing or music. This is what you are hearing.

Auditory hallucinations come in two distinctive flavors. There are true auditory hallucinations and false or pseudo-auditory hallucinations. There is a very important difference between these two flavors.

True Auditory Hallucinations

True auditory hallucinations are when you can clearly hear and understand voices (that are not there) talking to you. True auditory hallucinations are a sign of mental illness such as schizophrenia and have nothing to do with our ears.

Pseudo-auditory Hallucinations

In contrast, pseudo-auditory hallucinations have nothing to do with mental illness, but have everything to do with our faulty ears. People don't talk much about pseudo-auditory hallucinations because they think others will think they are nuts if they do.

The big difference between true auditory hallucinations and pseudo-auditory hallucinations is that pseudo-auditory hallucinations are always vague—not clear and understandable.

Many of us hard of hearing people hear pseudo-auditory hallucinations from time to time. I know that I do. One lady heard what sounded like "The Star Spangled Banner" playing over and over in her head. In fact, according to one medical report, people often hear what sounds like the National Anthem. This report went on to say that there is nothing wrong with these people mentally. (Whew! We're not crazy after all!)

Pseudo-auditory hallucinations sound vaguely like tunes, music or voices. They sound "fuzzy" or indistinct. One lady described hers as, "like the wind blowing, but with a musical quality, as if someone off in the distance was singing without words." Another lady said, "I've never heard a tune that I could identify. It sounds more like an orchestra warming up." Another woman described hers thus; "When I am in a real quiet room I hear this humming in my head like someone is humming a song but can't keep a tune." And a man described his as, "some song that sounds for all the world like it belongs as a theme song for PBS, but I can't place it."

Pseudo-auditory hallucinations arise from a different place in our brains than tinnitus. However, the effect may be much the same. That is why some people think it is tinnitus, but it isn't.

Make no mistake, when we hear pseudo-auditory hallucinations, it is a very real experience to us. One woman commented to her husband after they arrived at their hotel that she had really enjoyed the music on the plane trip. Her husband replied, "There was no music on the plane." On the return trip she again heard the music and nudged her husband. He listened and replied, "Nope! No music!"

Pseudo-auditory hallucinations can come from a variety of causes. I think the main cause is our hearing losses. When we become hard of hearing/deaf after having good hearing, our brains feel the loss of auditory input and seem to make up for this lack on their own. This seems to be particularly noticeable when it is very quiet and/or we are very tired. This is my experience. Nor am I alone in this.

A lady told me, "I used to hear noises that sounded like a marching band! It was never a recognizable tune, nor did it have a distinguishable melody—just marching band noise. (I used to play in a marching band for years, so I knew it wasn't any of those tunes.) I heard it most when I was working night shift in a hospital. I was in a children's unit, and they were all sound asleep, so it was very quiet, and typically, I was very tired."

A man related, "I would often lie half awake in the morning and hear a 'radio.' A guy would be talking like they did in the 50's. Kind of a monotone voice and all the advertisements like they did back then."

Another cause of pseudo-auditory hallucinations is taking various medications and drugs. One lady told me about one of her medications that "makes music in my deaf ear." A man taking several medications explained, "recently, I was about to take a nap when I heard the national anthem being played. I went into the next room and asked my wife if they were playing it on the TV No! Well, I continued to hear it for a period of time. Then all of a sudden it went to 'Amazing Grace.' Now, it is a repetitive three or four notes."

Pseudo-auditory hallucinations come in all varieties. One lady said, "I get Red Barber calling the game, I can't distinguish the words—but I'm sure that's who is talking." A man describing his said, "I had real life sounds like a jet airplane taking off, or someone talking to me, or classical music." One lady noted that when she was a young girl and flying with her dad in small planes, she would hear music. She described it, "The music was a full choir, rather like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and when I was very young, I thought it was angels singing."

If you have pseudo-auditory hallucinations, don't worry about it. You are as normal as the rest of us hard of hearing people. Pseudo-auditory hallucinations aren't all bad. I mean, where else can you hear what sounds like classical music playing without hearing aids, players, headphones or other paraphernalia?

Note: This article contains what are now seen to be some inaccuracies—especially in the name pseudo-auditory hallucinations. As a result, this article is now superseded by a new article called Musical Ear Syndrome, giving the latest information on these phantom sounds. Better yet, if you desire to know more about Musical Ear Syndrome, get your copy of Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds now. In it, Dr. Neil relates the fascinating accounts of hundreds of people who have Musical Ear syndrome. You will discover what causes these auditory hallucinations, and more importantly, what you can do to reduce or eliminate them. An added bonus—you also get a list of the 368 drugs and other substances known to cause such hallucinations.