Weird buzzing in ears: "What is that #$%*^@* sound??"

Combination Tones

Combination Tones

Got an interesting email from someone who was experiencing a "multiphonic" in their ears when they played certain notes on the clarinet/bass clarinet. Is it real, or is it...combination tones?? Read on:

Dear Michael,

I'm an adult player. Sometimes when I play I hear a high harmonic / multiphonic that I cannot make go away. It's not the horn, it's not the reed, it's not the mouthpiece - I checked. It's worse with a Bundy than my R-13, but it's still there. I tried double lip, mouthpiece upside down, everything I could think of. I even ironed my pads. [ED: What?!?] I hear two distinct notes, and it's very distracting. It's mostly in the second register. It must be something in my physiology or hearing. Other people I have asked don't hear it while I play, but I'm not sure they know what to listen for. I have never heard it in someone else's playing. It's like my head is acting as a resonator for certain partials and amplifying them in my hearing.

Of course you have no way of knowing exactly what I am talking about, but I have seen other people complain about something similar on the web, so I thought perhaps you might be familiar with the phenomenon. Does that make any sense? You seem like an inquiring sort of guy, so I thought maybe you had heard of it.

My reply:

I had a weird phenomenon a couple years back where one of my ears (temporarily, thank goodness) heard every note about 20 cents sharp from the other. It completely disabled me for almost a month, and I saw ear specialists who said "we can't see anything wrong with you." Then, it basically went away one day.

This sounds different, because it's clearly been bothering you for a while. And I'm obviously no expert in this.

Here are some thoughts: every physical object has what's known as a "Resonant Frequency" — think of it as a piano string with the damper pedal pulled off. If you play that note on your clarinet, the string will sympathetically resonate. Wine glasses will resonate with the right frequency (cue the soprano singing a high note that breaks the glass). Some things resonate VERY low, like large auditoriums when you push a low frequency through some loudspeaker.

Not everything in nature is that well tuned though: like our bodies. And it's possible that with certain notes parts of your HEAD vibrate. That's exacerbated by the fact that your head has a bass clarinet in it vibrating directly against bones (your teeth). It's possible that the amplification of the instrument in your mouth is what causes you to hear it only when you're playing.

I'll show you what I mean. Get out your bass clarinet, play a low C, and look at an LCD clock screen, like your microwave. You'll see it vibrate before your eyes, undulating very slowly. Play a C# and it will undulate faster. That's your HEAD VIBRATING!!

So it may be something you can't control, unfortunately. But if it truly bothers you and, like my problem, disables your enjoyment of playing, you should go see an Ear/Nose/Throat specialist.

Have you encountered this sort of problem? How did you deal with it? Please put your stories in the comments so we can help this guy out.

Mike

bass clarinetMichaelComment