Loud, persistent ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus, can be vexing for its millions of sufferers. This perceived noise can be symptomatic of many different ills—from earwax to aging—but the most common cause is from noise-induced hearing loss, such as extended exposure to construction or loud music, and treating many of its underlying neural causes has proven difficult.

But many people with tinnitus might soon be able to find refuge in the very indulgence that often started the ringing in the first place: music.

A new music-based therapy has shown promise in helping reduce the ringing's volume in tinnitus sufferers within a year, according to a study published online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Tinnitus loudness can be significantly diminished by an enjoyable, low-cost, custom-tailored notched music treatment," wrote the researchers, who were led in part by Christo Pantev at the Institute for Biomagnetism and Biosign Alanalysis at Westfalian Wilhelms-University in Munster, Germany. 

The treatment is based on behavioral training theories that posit that the auditory cortex, which is responsible for perceiving the sound and has been shown to be distorted in the areas where a specific frequency is "heard," might gradually be trained to reorganize, correcting for its maladaptive distortion.

In the small study, eight subjects with tinnitus listened to their music of choice that had been specially edited—or "notched"—to remove the frequency that corresponded to their tinnitus level. Another eight subjects with tinnitus listened to their preferred music that had random "placebo" frequencies removed, and another seven individuals with tinnitus received no treatment.

Those in the two music groups listened for an average of about 12.4 hours per week, and the individuals in the tinnitus-tuned section found that "tinnitus loudness was significantly reduced," the authors reported. The other two groups showed no change.

The researchers propose that the therapy might work by re-wiring parts of the auditory cortex that have become over-active to instead tune into surrounding—but different—tones. Another possibility is that with deprivation, these specially tuned auditory neurons would undergo "long-term depression," causing them to become less active overall.

The therapy might also get a boost from the simple pleasure of listening to good music. "Joyful listening to music activates the reward system of the brain and leads to release of dopamine, which plays an important role in cortical reorganization," noted the authors. Just so long as that music is at a reasonable volume, of course.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/nicolas_