I started this blog a decade ago, with the goal of sharing with others what it's like to live with multiple sclerosis chronic pain caused by MS- related trigeminal neuralgia.
Along the way, I found a great many other topics to explore and share, but still, at it's heart, ZPT is about this one woman's experiences and journey with disability.
But my health idiosyncrasies didn't begin with my first definitive MS symptom, that fall after a hot shower when I was 21. Instead, they started a full decade before I was legally able to order a whisky sour, when I unexpectedly came down with the mumps.
I had the large, painful lumps on the right side of my face/jaw, and I was miserable.* My mom, hoping to cheer me up, scoured the city for a book** about a kid with the mumps for me to read during my bed rest. That gift, plus the feeling of pressure from the swelling and a general feeling of malaise, are my strongest memories of that time.
The mumps apparently enjoyed their sojourn in Casa Angel, and thus left me with something to remember it by: I was now functionally deaf in my right ear. And that deafness itself gifted me with something even more rare than going deaf in one ear from the mumps: musical hallucinations.
Despite its unfortunate name, musical hallucinations are neither a result nor a symptom of mental illness, but is instead sort of a type of tinnitus. It's almost always present in a person with some degree of hearing loss. Women are somewhat more likely to experience it than men.***
So, what are musical hallucinations? In short: it's hearing music in your head, when no music is being played.
Everyone, from time to time, is plagued by the song they just can't get dislodged from their brain.
In my case, every song is a song that gets "stuck" in my head. Musical hallucinations are basically just non-stop clips of music, not unlike an 70's-era K-Tel infomercial.
For me the music is omnipresent: both songs I love and songs I hate. Songs that anybody would get stuck on from to to time, and songs that so unremarkable, you can't figure out why you'd remember it at all. An all-time favorite song could be supplanted by a cereal jingle from the 80's, and songs that are an assault to the ears can be followed by a cartoon theme song. Bad, good or boring as hell...it makes no difference.
There is never a time when I don't hear music. The only exception is when I am actually hearing music along with everybody else, via recordings or live performances, such as...
...this Rasputina concert Jonathan and I attended. It was a wonderful show which thankfully introduced me to one of my extra-strength Tune Stoppers: "1816 The Year Without a Summer" (more on that later).
Even when I am asleep, the music prevails.
If that sounds somewhat familiar, well, you're not alone. When I talk about the endless concert in my head, people will often remark, "Oh! Like the music box, right?"
The reason? The concept of musical hallucinations made an appearance on the popular television program, "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Specifically the season three episode, "The Survivors."
In that episode, a human couple are the only--and inexplicable--survivors of an alien invasion. Right away, Counselor Troi finds them suspicious, but as usual can't quite work out why.
Her efforts are thwarted when she begins to hear persistent music in her head. It's the same song, over and over again. The song itself was totally foreign to her; she'd never heard it prior to this mission.
Unbeknownst to Troi, it's the tune that plays from the female survivor's antique music box.
She confides in Picard, who consoles her by suggestioning she take "the necessary sleep inducements," and by pointing out that everyone has had the experience of being assaulted by a song with a thousand encores. Deanna responds, "No. It's real."
Medication proves useless. Dr. Crusher decides to put her in a medical coma, and an increasingly panicked Troi insists that it won't work. "The music will only follow me!" she insists. Later, when in the coma, Crusher notes that Troi "continues to act as if she hears the music."
Eventually, (spoiler alert) Picard discovers that there is really only one survivor...and he is responsible not only for the genocide of the alien attackers' entire species, but also for the music torturing the comatose counselor.
That episode, and the musical/film "Amadeus," are the main examples of musical hallucinations seen in popular culture (please see the Update below). In both instances, it's portrayed as a bad thing: both Troi and Mozart nearly go crazy. In reality, the condition isn't related to any other mental illness and the sufferers almost never have any psychiatric conditions.
Ironically, Mozart's music (particularly "Don Giovanni") is frequently a guest performer in the 24-hour concert venue in my head.
So what kind of music do I hear? Anything and everything, from my favorite Prince songs to commercial jingles and everything in between.
For better or for worse, I tend to remember songs I have been subjected to, even just once. This was very unfortunate when attending what I now affectionately refer to as "Cowboy High" in the early 90's.
However, it was a boon when I played in orchestras and sang in choirs. It certainly made memorizing the music a great deal easier!
It isn't so pleasant when I passionately hate a song and at any moment, I'll hear it over and over again, note-for-note, with no end in sight (damn you, "Life is a Highway"! You have tormented me far too many times, you awful bastard).
There are a few songs that work well to dislodge melodies I cannot stand. I call them Tune Stoppers****. Currently, I'm using one of the more effective Tune Stoppers ("Your Love" by the Outfield), in an attempt to drown out the song I unfortunately began hearing instantly after writing about it.
Even when dreaming, the music is there. I often describe it as being a bit like Mozart as depicted in the movie "Amadeus," only with less genius songwriting...
...and more endless hours of Nickleback.
And there really isn't a damn thing you can do about it, except add to your Tune Stoppers list and avoid music you know you're likely to despise...and remember.
There is no medication. Music therapy can help some sufferers; I understand that they also often suggest various versions of my Tune Stoppers method as a way to at least not be at the mercy of some terrible song that will ride you all night long...damn it! Not again!
Many people with musical hallucinations hate it. Most of the time, I don't. Sure, it can be very annoying sometimes, but in the end, it's just a part of who I am and I choose to see it positively. After all, I do love music.
In an effort to show people what it's like to have musical hallucinations, I will be using Twitter to document just what it is I am hearing for the month of February in a little experiment I call The 28 Day Playlist.
I will then post about it here at the ZPT, and maybe make some cute charts or what have you. After all, as a close friend recently told me: my blog has no panache.
It will hopefully give some insight into what living with a constant dance hall in your head is like. So please check back with me at the end of the month, and/or follow my musical adventure at @ZenAngelSinger!
UPDATE! A reader pointed out to me that there is another example of a television show using the "I can't get this song out of my head!" to comedic affect: the "Seinfeld" episode, "The Jacket." In this episode, George is unable to get the song "Master of the House" from "Les Miserables" out of his head. His constant humming/singing of the tune proves contagious to those around him, including Elaine's gruff & grumpy father!
Wa do & thank you to Eddie Speghetti for the "Seinfeld" tip! You are truly a fountain of TV information. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
•🌀•If any readers can think of any other pop culture musical hallucinations, please leave a comment or email me!•🌀•
*The fact that the majority of my MS symptoms are on my right side, including my trigeminal neuralgia, is one of those little ironies of my life.
**"The book in question is "On Your Toes, Susie!" by Lee Wyndham.
It's part of a series of books about the titular character. In "Toes," Susie finds her spot as the star dancer at her dance school is in jeopardy when an exchange student named Mimi arrives and dances circles around the other girls. Susie is jealous, and even more determined to win the starring role in an upcoming recital. Her efforts are undermined by a sudden bout of the mumps. She is miserable, but her misery is compounded when she gets an unexpected roommate: Mimi also has the mumps! I remain baffled by the fact that stories like this one, with positive messages for kids, aren't made into movies in favor of junk like "The Smurfs 2."
***This great article explains musical hallucinations perfectly:
****Other examples of Tune Stoppers: "California Love" by Tupac, "Hate Me" by Blue October, "People Are People" by Depeche Mode, "Bluebeard" by the Cocteau Twins, and the national anthem.