The different sounds of tinnitus 

Tinnitus affects people in different ways. Some are only mildly affected, in others it may be severe.

Some people with tinnitus are more sensitive to everyday sounds. For example, a person with tinnitus may find a radio or television painfully loud when it's at a normal volume for most people. This is known as hyperacusis.

Your tinnitus may be more noticeable at certain times or in certain situations. For example, mild tinnitus is usually more noticable when it's quiet because noisy environments can mask the sounds.

Tinnitus is also sometimes related to posture. You may hear sounds when lying or sitting down, or when you turn your head. After these types of movements, pressure changes in your nerves, muscles or blood vessels may trigger the noises associated with tinnitus.

Most tinnitus is perceived as a high-pitched sound, such as hissing, whistling or buzzing.

However, for some people, tinnitus can be a low-frequency noise, such as humming, murmuring, rumbling or deep droning. Others may experience musical hallucinations, where they repeatedly hear tunes or songs in their head.

These less common types of tinnitus are described in more detail below.

Less common types of tinnitus

Low-frequency noise

People who constantly hear low-frequency noise often think it's coming from an external source rather than from inside their head or ears.

Sources of external low-frequency noise include:

  • road and air traffic noise  
  • underground gas pipes
  • home appliances, such as fans and fridges
  • air-conditioning units

The wind, sea and thunder are natural sources of low-frequency noise.

Ask other people whether they can also hear the sound.

If you can only hear the noise when you're in one place, it may be coming from an external source, whereas if you can hear it all the time, you may have tinnitus. Stress or a recent illness may be related to your symptoms.

Musical hallucinations

Musical hallucinations are more common in people with long-term tinnitus and hearing loss. However, they're also sometimes experienced by people with normal hearing and those with an increased sensitivity to sound (hyperacusis).

As with other types of tinnitus, there's sometimes no apparent reason for musical hallucinations. However, stress can sometimes be a trigger.

Pulsatile tinnitus

Pulsatile tinnitus is where you hear rhythmical noises that often beat in time with your pulse. It's usually caused either by:

  • blood flow changes in the blood vessels near your ear
  • increased awareness of the blood flow near your ears

The blood flow through an artery can sometimes become restricted by a build-up of fatty deposits (plaques) on the inside wall of the artery. This is known as atherosclerosis and causes the artery to narrow. The narrowed artery prevents blood from flowing smoothly, resulting in it becoming 'noisy'.

If you have impaired hearing or a hearing condition such as a perforated eardrum, your awareness of sounds that come from inside your body, such as your blood flow, may be increased. This is because your hearing becomes more sensitive and internal noises aren't drowned out by external sounds.

Page last reviewed: 12/09/2013

Next review due: 12/09/2015