But for people with conditions that cause decreased sound tolerance, or DST, hearing the shrieky vocals, loud beats and repetitive choruses of modern pop music can evoke more than mere irritation; they can actually diminish quality of life. For them, hearing that overplayed Alicia Keys song is a potentially traumatic experience, one that can’t simply be solved by simply tuning it out.
Two conditions that produce DST have gained increased attention over the last few years: misophonia and hyperacusis. Misophonia, which literally means “hatred of sound,” is a condition in which everyday sounds evoke intense negative emotions and physical reactions. Common triggers include the sounds of people eating, drinking or chewing gum, or even breathing, yawning or hiccups. Misophonics can become extremely annoyed, panicked and even enraged when exposed to their trigger sounds. Many report a kind of “fight or flight” response, in which, during a rush of adrenaline, they feel the need to either attack the offending sound or run in the other direction.
“Music can be a trigger,” said Pawel Jastreboff, a hearing specialist at the Emory University School of Medicine who first coined the term misophonia in 2001. “Normally we think of the sounds people make -- eating, chewing -- but any sound can trigger it. It depends on the individual. I had one patient who couldn’t stand the sound of high-flying planes.”
Jastreboff, who with his wife, Margaret, has treated hundreds of misophonia patients, said the personal manner in which we experience music makes it difficult to identify as a misophonia trigger, particularly as having a distaste for certain musical genres is pretty much a universal experience.
“We all have types of music we don’t like,” he said. “For most people this is just a normal reaction, and you should just turn it off.”
So how can you tell if your hatred of Taylor Swift is a symptom of an underlying disorder, and not just good taste? Jastreboff said you should start by examining the history of your reaction to sounds. Are there other sounds that you find intolerable? Are you unable to control your emotional reaction to trigger sounds, even though you know it’s irrational? Jastreboff also identified tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, as a possible warning sign, as some studies put the prevalence of misophonia at 60 percent among tinnitus suffers. Ultimately, though, he admitted that the line between everyday annoyance and clinical misophonia is a blurry one -- dependent on an individual’s tolerance level.
“It’s a continuum, not a razor cut,” he said. “There is no one point where you could clearly identify something as clinical misophonia. You know if the problem becomes so big that you seek professional help.”
The mechanisms that cause misophonia are not fully understood. The condition is believed to be neurological in nature, but research shows there is a strong psychological component as well. For instance, as noted in an Oct. 2012 study by the University of California, most misophonics are not bothered by trigger sounds when they themselves produce the sounds. In other words, a person who hates to listen to people eat won’t starve himself to death just to avoid the chewing.
That doesn’t mean, however, that misophonia sufferers can just “get over it,” even though that is often what they’re told to do. Misophonia is treated with a variety of options including behavior therapy and sound-generating devices that mask offending sounds. Jastreboff said a proper diagnosis is important, as similar conditions such as hyperacusis (which is characterized by a decreased tolerance to certain frequencies) are treated differently.
As for his own way of coping with annoying music, Jastreboff has a surefire method: He listens to classical -- although he doesn’t rule out modern offerings altogether. “I do like some forms of pop music,” he said. “I’m also a big fan of ‘Freebird.’”