Musical hallucination, hearing music that is not actually being played, happens from time to time among older people. However, usually the music that is “heard” are songs or pieces that the person is familiar with. A unique case is described in a recent issue of the journal Frontiers in Neurology. in which a 60-year-old woman suddenly began hearing music, as if a radio were playing at the back of her head.
When she sang or hummed them the songs they turned out to be popular tunes her husband recognized. Except she herself did not know them.
Authors Dr. Danilo Vitorovic and Dr. José Biller of Loyola University Medical Center say this is the first recorded case of a patient hallucinating music familiar to other people, but that she herself did not recognize.
Memory, Forgetting, and Hallucination
To me, this brings up the question of whether the woman had consciously heard them before and forgotten them, or heard the songs subliminally and later recalled them in full via hallucination, or something else. The case raises “intriguing questions regarding memory, forgetting and access to lost memories,” the authors say.
Musical hallucinations are a sub-type of auditory hallucinations. Patients hear songs, instrumental music or tunes, although no such music is in fact playing. Most patients understand they are hallucinating, and most, though not all, find the music intrusive and occasionally unpleasant.
This phantom music usually is experienced by older people. Possible causes or predisposing factors include brain damage, hearing impairment, and epilepsy. Intoxication and psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder can also be at play. The most common predisposing condition is hearing impairment, but by itself is not sufficient to cause hallucinations.
Hearing Unheard Tunes
In the case described by Vitorovic and Biller, a hearing-impaired patient first hallucinated music when she was trying to fall asleep. But within four months, she was hearing the phantom music all the time. She would, for example, hear one particular song over and over for three weeks, consequently another song would begin playing.
Volume never varied, and she could hear and follow conversations at the same time as hallucinating the music. When treated with the anti-seizure drug carbamazepine she experienced some improvement in her symptoms.
One interesting characteristic of the case was the woman’s ability to hum parts of some tunes and recall bits of lyrics from some songs that she did not even recognize. It raises the possibility that the songs were in her memory, but she could only access them when hallucinating.
“Further research is necessary on the mechanisms of forgetfulness,” Vitorovic and Biller write. “In other words, is forgotten information lost, or just not accessible?”
If you want to read in more detail about auditory and other hallucinations, I highly recommend Oliver Sack’s book Hallucinations. After you understand the reasons behind these weird visions, these phantoms of the brain, they don’t seem so frightening somehow, and Sacks does a fantastic job of explaining them for the average reader.