Newcastle University scientists work with pianist to treat 'musical hallucinations'

Scientists at Newcastle University have analysed a 69-year-old's brain activity to discover why she persistently hears classical music in her head

Sylvia, who persistently hears classical music by Bach in her head
Sylvia, who persistently hears classical music by Bach in her head

A pianist who persistently hears classical music by Bach in her head could hold the key to a breakthrough in treating a rare ear condition.

The woman is one of only a handful of people to experience “musical hallucinations” as a result of tinnitus and claims she also hears Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore echoing in her ears.

She told researchers she has an “iPod in her head” ever since suffering a viral infection 20 years ago and later being diagnosed with acute hearing loss.

The 69-year-old – a maths teacher called Sylvia who also played the piano and has perfect pitch – suffered musical hallucinations that kept her awake at night.

And, after being diagnosed with the rare condition, she was able to alter the music in her hallucinations by playing different tunes herself.

Scientists at Newcastle University have been working with the patient to discover which areas of the brain are affected when patients experience the condition.

And it’s hoped the findings could lead to a better understanding of the condition and possibly treatments in the future. Dr Sukhbinder Kumar from Newcastle University, who is the lead author of a paper published today in Cortex, said: “We found that a network of brain areas that are usually involved in processing of melodies and retrieval of memory of music were particularly active during hallucinations of music in the absence of any sound or music being played externally.” Nearly one in 10 people suffer from tinnitus, which is technically an auditory hallucination, in which tones or buzzing noises are heard following hearing loss.

However, in a small number of people with hearing loss, these hallucinations take the form of music, but until now the brain mechanisms underlying this process were poorly understood.

The Newcastle University study – carried out with the University College London funded by the Wellcome Trust – has looked in-depth at one sufferer of the condition and pinpointed the regions of the brain involved in producing the hallucinations.

Scientists first identified pieces of music that suppressed her hallucinations and these pieces were then played to her while her brain activity was monitored using special equipment.

Magnetic fields around the scalp were measured as the brain processed the information.

During normal perception of music, what we actually hear is a complex interplay of the sound entering the ear and our brain’s interpretations and predictions.

Normally, the strength and quality of the input from the ear is so high that it dominates what we actually perceive however the brain fills in the gaps when the ears do not provide enough input.

Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, said: “This case is extremely fascinating, but the condition is relatively rare.

“However, it is unusual cases such as this that can give us profound insights into how the brain works and, one hopes, lead to potential new treatments to improve the patient’s life.”


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer