Musical hallucinations? I thought it was normal.

Today’s New York Times has an article about the phenomenon of “musical hallucinations” in which people start to hear music in their minds that appears to be real to them. This “disease” is thought to be much more common than the number of diagnoses would indicate, since it commonly is not reported. The article describes how the composer Robert Schumann (who had a history of mental illness) wrote down the music he hallucinated–he was taking dictation, he said, from Franz Schubert’s ghost.

This is an interesting article for me, because it appears that I “suffer” from this “disease.” I always have music in my mind, and I have always had it in my mind from as far back as I can remember. Sometimes it is music that I have heard on the radio or played on the stereo at home; sometimes it is music that I am rehearsing or performing, or have recently performed. The worst is after I give a recital, I tend to “replay” the recital over and over and over again in my mind for several days, especially focussing on aspects that did not go well. The music may not be a complete song, it may be simply a phrase that replays again and again in my mind. (This morning, I have a couple of phrases from John Tavener’s “The Veil of the Temple” on constant loop in the background. But on any given day, it could be anything, mostly classical, but not always.) Sometimes it is music unheard before. The point is, it’s always there.

But I have never felt that there was anything wrong with this music on the brain; in fact, I’ve always just assumed that it was normal and that everybody has it. It’s only fairly recently that I discovered that not everybody does; then I got to wondering if, for example, mathematicians have formulas running through their minds all the time, in the same way that I’m hearing music. A year or so I described my personal phenomenon to a friend of mine, thinking that it would be a shared experience, and he really looked at me as if I was crazy. He had no relationship to it at all. When I tell people that I can’t imagine not having music in my life, I mean it literally.

As the article describes, I have learned to “tune it out”, for instance if I am in a business meeting, or my mind is focussed on listening to a talk show on NPR. And the music in my mind never overtakes what I am performing at any given time–at those times, my mind is “in synch” with itself.

So am I crazy? I don’t think so, since I am able to function normally in every aspect of my life. And since the music has always been with me, I don’t see it as anything unnatural. Most of the time I rather enjoy it, and I can’t imagine being without it. Lucky me!

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