Most of us know what it’s like to encounter an earworm, one of those songs that you just can’t get out of your head. But as hard as it is to quell the echo of these songs in our minds, we aren’t really hearing them. For some people who just can’t stop the beat, though, the music playing in their minds is indistinguishable from reality—and sometimes very specific in genre.
In a recent review published in the journal Brain, researchers set out to figure out who has musical hallucinations and what conditions are most likely behind the phenomenon. The team combed through past reports of patients with musical hallucinations who were evaluated at the Mayo Clinic from 1996 to 2003 and found that musical hallucinations don’t just crop up in connection to a bunch of different illnesses—they actually sound different depending on what condition is causing them. People with neurodegenerative diseases or hearing loss tend to hear religious or patriotic music, while those with brain damage hear modern music and people with psychiatric disorders hear different flavors of music depending on what mood they are in.
Music in the head
It’s actually not uncommon to experience some kind of auditory hallucinations that involve simple sounds, like in tinnitus. Musical hallucinations on the other hand, are made of complex, well-developed sounds and are more rare; one study detected them in 0.16 percent of people admitted to the psychiatric departments of two hospitals.
Musical hallucinations have been linked to psychiatric and neurologic diseases, damage in…