November 2, 2004 Feature

Music Studied as Tinnitus Relief

Tinnitus is a common problem, affecting about 17% of the world's population and nearly 50 million people in the United States. One common treatment for tinnitus patients is listening to broadband noise, and participating in one-on-one counseling. A more tuneful approach could come through University of Iowa audiologist Rich Tyler whose research uses music.

The study is based on the idea that music is an easier background sound to listen to than broadband noise. The music might also offer engaging qualities for patients to facilitate a shift away from the prominence of the tinnitus.

Tyler's research, using a grant from the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), is exploring the use of music therapy for tinnitus in a systematic fashion. Approximately 90 patients are taking part, divided into three groups: passive listeners, active listeners, and those who are undergoing only counseling.

The passive listeners either play music in the background or wear headphones while doing tasks or studying. "The point is, they're not attending to the music-it's not engaging them," he said.

In the active listening group, participants must focus their attention on the music. They are asked to associate with it through different tactics: tapping out the music, humming along, or singing along, either out loud or silently.

The active and passive participants listen to the music for 30 minutes, three times a day and keep a journal of how they're doing. These groups, along with the counseling participants, are also using music to help them sleep. Most tinnitus patients have problems getting to sleep, Tyler said. In the relative quiet of the bedroom, tinnitus becomes more prominent.

Many professionals, such as dentists, physicians, and psychologists, use music to help people relax, Tyler noted. It is also helpful for enhancing sleep and neurological functions, such as learning and concentration.

"What we want in the groups is for the music to be in the background. We want it to be something peaceful and it has to be something they can easily ignore and accept." The study is using some collections put together by composer Janalea Hoffman, who is a private practice music therapist from Kansas City. This music focuses on harmonizing internal body rhythms with external rhythms.

Some patients dislike listening to the same tunes repeatedly, so Tyler advises them to try storage formats which allow for hours of recorded music. The study encourages participants to use the music therapy as much as they like, but for at least three periods a day.

"We hope to be able to produce results within six months," Tyler said of the three-year study, which began about nine months ago. Data is being collected for the six-month and 12-month marks. However, statistical information likely will be unavailable until 2006.

"During partial masking [in the broadband therapy], the patient hears the broadband noise and the tinnitus. For some, the noise can be moderately loud and interfere with speech perception," Tyler said. Most tinnitus patients have hearing loss, and most people with hearing loss don't like even moderate levels of background noise, he added. Since music is not a continuous signal like broadband, it is easier to listen at a lower level. "The music can be friendly and more easily put in the background."

It may seem ironic that music therapy could help relieve the symptoms of tinnitus when loud music also can cause the condition. Tyler points out, however, that the therapy can be particularly difficult for musicians because their training and mindset encourages them to analyze music. It often prevents them from relaxing enough to use the music.

"We're not sure the music therapy will be the best thing for everyone, but the initial response from many of the patients is positive," Tyler said.

Dee Naquin Shafer, an assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at 

cite as: Shafer, D. N. (2004, November 02). Music Studied as Tinnitus Relief. The ASHA Leader.

An Historic Disorder

The word tinnitus comes from Latin and means "to tinkle or to ring like a bell." Its most common cause is exposure to noise. Age, medications, certain disorders, and blows to the head also can cause the condition.

Many famous people have reported tinnitus symptoms. Eighteenth century political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in 1780 that "...a great noise started up in my ears, a noise that was triple or rather quadruple, compounded of a low and muffled humming, a softer murmuring as though of running water, a piercing whistle." Ludwig Van Beethoven complained of "rushing and roaring" sounds, while Charles Darwin kept records of its daily frequency. Today, musicians from U2's The Edge to Barbara Streisand also deal with tinnitus.


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