I can’t get you out of my head

Imagine having a song on permanent play in your head – that’s what people with musical hallucinations have to contend with

We all know the feeling of having a song ‘on the brain’. But a musical hallucination is different: it is just like actually hearing the song.

Musical hallucinations are seen in a variety of groups, such as people who become deaf in middle to later life and people with schizophrenia or some types of brain damage, and can even occur as a side-effect of drug treatments. They are not always seen as a nuisance – in one study, around a quarter of people found them pleasurable.

They may arise because the brain mistakenly characterises brain activity in musical processing areas as externally generated.

A study in Wales found that the condition tended to affect older people with hearing loss. They experienced all kinds of songs, from ‘Three Blind Mice’ to ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’, though hymns were particularly common among the religious. It appears that songs from the past, with a deep emotional connection, are those that bubble up in the brain.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Psychology, Health, infection and disease, Medicine
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development