Saturday, August 20, 2011

Brown's Syndrome: perpetual music

"Would you rather give up your sight or your hearing?" a friend asked me ten years ago, on our way to a piano concert in Seattle.

Without hesitating, I exclaimed, "That's a no-brainer! Hearing, of course. Music would still be going on in my head." Until yesterday, I didn't know how or why. Thanks to Dr. Steven Brown for describing what I'll call "Brown's Syndrome." (Download a PDF of the complete article at The Perpetual Music Track.)

...I'm playing air-piano on my arm and my teeth are clicking a rhythm. "What's the song?" I ask myself, turning in. Oh yeah. It's a loop of a hymn I recently learned while listening to British Christian radio. I sing along in my head for a while, then zone out to watch traffic.

We're on our way home from Vancouver, BC, where we celebrated my brother's wedding yesterday and my daughter's 30th birthday today. The music persists, looping around until I zoom in again, then fades into the background while I remember details of the bride's stunning dress, a visit with Kirsten's friend at a fabulous raw food restaurant (Organic Lives), and the lush green summer outside the car windows.

I change the song a few times, but the same melody and words are back when I check in after a few minutes.

"It's time to find out if there's a name for this!" Maybe someone has written a paper on waking up at night or in the morning and checking the internal soundtrack, before drifting back into sleep or wakefulness.

I Google "persistent music in my head" and come up with an article by Stephen Brown at SFU. Brown calls the symptom "The Perpetual Music Track," and says none of his friends can relate. Their heads are full of words, pictures, or quiet.

Brown describes PMT in detail, using his experience as a case study. Like me, Dr. Brown took music lessons from early childhood on, and considers himself an amateur musician. In those with PMT:

  • known and improvised tunes loop through the conscious and unconscious.
  • the tunes don't stop, though they can be temporarily replaced by conscious effort.
  • even when unaware of the music, the body responds by "playing piano," tapping, conducting, moving. I find myself clicking my back teeth to rhythms when I can't hum, whistle, or fidget toes, feet, or fingers.  I suspect my brother has PMT: he taps or hums into almost any silence. I don't know that he's thought about the persistence of music in his head. It just is. Most of the time we don't realize the music track is going. If there's external quiet, I might check in to see what I'm singing or playing inside. Mostly, I move through the day and night, music coming and going throughout my body.
  • music in dreams can be experienced and composed far beyond what happens in wakefulness. Oh the songs I've written, played, and conducted! (Mind you, the paintings and drawings of my dreams are amazing, too.) It's disappointing to forget completely upon waking, because the melody and harmony -- or line and color -- can be defined and reworked in dreams in such detail that I'm positive I could never forget them. Oops. Eye blink. Morning light. Gone!
  • we just live with it. Though it's distracting at times to stream the plethora of notes and lines, we might as well enjoy it. There's no turning it off. A few years ago, the silence in my head turned off for a few months. It felt weird and lonely; my whole body felt empty and quiet without music.

I postulate Beethoven wrote his best music while deaf because he had no external interruptions of his music loops. I've thought many times about what it would be like to be able to refine phrases over and over without overlays of noise. What subtleties of orchestration, rhythm, harmonies, and melodies could emerge without other sounds breaking in? The greatest frustration would be like Beethoven's: not being able to hear the result of the score composed in the void of silence. Then I wonder, how are Beethoven's rhythms and melodies related to feeling his pulse, swallowing, the slow drip of lymphatic fluid, the quiet hiss of muscle movement, and the grating of his bones and joints? Was he deaf inside his body? Did he feel the sounds of body movement rather than hear them?

Anyone else relate to this? Oops, sorry. Gotta go, got Josh Groban's "The Prayer" stuck in my head. Time to change the DVD!

Read more:
*Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him. Psalm 126:5-6 NIV

*Praise the LORD. Praise, O servants of the LORD, praise the name of the LORD. Let the name of the LORD be praised, both now and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the LORD is to be praised. Psalm 113:1-3 NIV

*Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. Romans 8:26-28 NKJV


  1. hm... i almost ALWAYS have something going in my head or i'm humming without knowing it. maybe i have brown's syndrome tendencies! ^_^

    1. Might be - I find that about half of musicians have this perpetual music track. I just checked in with my own soundtrack. Yup, teeth clicking a rhythm, the tune's going on. If this blog describes you, now you have the name for it!

  2. Thanks for great information you write it very clean. I am very lucky to get this tips from you.

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    1. Can you identify? It's cool to know that we are beautifully made - hard to imagine life without the music. I wonder what kind of music people in Africa and Asia "sing" in their heads!

  3. hello, my name is Lydia Mills. I live in the UK. When I found your website and essay I cried because I have this too and have been unable to find anyonelse who has it so severely. I have music in my dreams and songs playing a lot. It worsens when tired or feeling low. I don't have 'musical hallucinations' but am petrified of having them in the future. Please please reply to my comment. I have sent you an e-mail. I hope at some point you can respond because Iv felt so alone with it. Thanks. I need to talk to or meet someonelse who has this to save my sanity.

  4. For some it is more severe. But nearly every musician experiences this. If it interferes with 'real life' it might be good to seek medical treatment. For our family, all musicians, we accept the music in our head as something that goes on and on ... and overlays all the other experiences.

    Got to say, I was delighted to read the article and find out we weren't crazy but gifted with a stream of sound that only some hear. Quite wonderful how the brain loops what we hear with what we think. Although it can be annoying! too. Didn't get your email. If you want to send me contact info, that would be fine and I will respond without publishing your comment (comments are moderated without publication.)

  5. My husband and I (near Washington, DC) aren't muscians but have lived with what we now know as PMT for many years. We compare song lists when we wake in the morning and throughout the day. It is sometimes more than a small annoyance (interfering with concentrated thought and sleep) but I suspect there is nothing to be done about it. My question is: does anyone know of any published research besides Brown's article?

  6. That's the only research I've found. Interesting though, isn't it? Funny how it goes on in the backgound of the mind and we can dial in to see what's playing.