Unpleasant reactions to ‘music’

A consultant clinical psychologist reports an unusual problem.

May I please return to the subject of synaesthesia, covered in your pages some time ago (February 2015)?

I have always felt a connection between music and a sense of space. Listening to pieces in two parts by Bach, I hear the two lines, but also have a sense of the space between them. Some chords, particularly those used by jazz pianists in the late 1950s and 1960s invoke a particularly strong sense of open space, akin to seeing the prairies or fenland.

None of that was or is unpleasant. But recently a new phenomenon has made itself felt, although I am not sure that synaesthesia is the correct term for it. It occurs when I hear some sounds or music created by electronic means. Currently when the BBC television news changes from national to regional the transition is accompanied by what is perhaps best described as a fanfare of artificial sound. It has the effect of causing me to feel what I can only describe as queasy. The same sort of fanfare – one cannot call it music – accompanies the advertisement for Bridgestone tyres which marks the transition from Channel 4 news to the weather forecast shortly before 8pm. That causes me to feel nauseous.

A similar but far more serious effect was caused by the sound that accompanied a previous advertisement in the same time-slot for the Novotel hotel chain. That sound caused me to feel positively physically unwell and also psychologically alarmed. The effect was so bad that I began to develop a phobic response. At first the response was to the beginning of the advertisement, so that I needed to turn off the television or change channel. Then the phobia began to generalise so that I began to suffer an adverse response to Channel 4 itself. I also began to develop an obsessive response, and re-experience the sound and the sight of the advertisement, accompanied by the same unwell and alarmed feeling. Fortunately the response has now extinguished. Nonetheless as I write this I am experiencing an involuntary intrusive visual recollection (‘flashback’) of the scene that the noise accompanied.

I have also found that a faint response of feeling unsettled is now produced by the sound of a Wurlitzer organ, of the kind that used to be called a cinema organ. One heard that instrument quite a lot in former times. Indeed the BBC Light Programme had a weekly series devoted to it, which previously caused no problem that I noticed.

Am I alone in experiencing such responses? Is there anything that can be done to alleviate or avoid such a response? As can be imagined, I shall never stay in a Novotel, however good the facilities. But less selectively I should hate the sound to become any further established in the television repertoire.

Christopher Macy
Consultant Clinical Psychologist

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