Weird hums in the UK

The BBC News reports on the strange low-frequency "hums" that have annoyed people and fueled conspiracy theorists around the world for years. Perhaps the best-known example in the United States is called the Taos Hum because many people in Taos, New Mexico claim to hear it. In the UK, there's also the Bristol Hum and the Largs Hum. Audiologist Dr. David Baguley and researchers from the University of Salford are studying the problem to help those who suffer distress because of the weird hums. According to Baguley, "In about a third of cases there is some environmental source that can be tracked down and dealt with... Most of the time, however, there is no external noise that can be recorded or identified." From the BBC News:
His own theory - based on years of research - is that many sufferers' hearing has become over-sensitive.

Surrounded in his office by plastic models of human ears, he explains how we each have an internal volume control that helps us amplify quiet sounds in times of threat, danger or intense concentration.

"If you're sitting by a table waiting for exam results and the phone rings you jump out of your skin. Waiting for a teenager to come home from a party - the key in the door sounds really loud. Your internal gain is sensitised."

This is a mechanism we all rely on at moments of pressure or stress when we want our senses on full alert.

According to Dr Baguley, the problem comes when an individual fixes on a possibly innocuous background sound, and this act of concentration then triggers the body's "internal gain", boosting the volume.

The initial "signal" may vary from person to person, but the outcome is the same.

"It becomes a vicious cycle," he explains. "The more people focus on the noise, the more anxious and fearful they get, the more the body responds by amplifying the sound, and that causes even more upset and distress."
"Have you heard 'the Hum'?"


  1. Oh, sure “over-sensitive hearing.” Just the kind of idea that might be put in your head by, say, a government mind control hum. You can’t fool me, though. I already destroyed my own eardrums to avoid exactly this kind of propaganda.

  2. I remember that transformers on telephone poles used to hum when it was foggy or humid. Does it get foggy in the UK? [heh]

  3. Well, that’s a solvable mystery. It’s not like we don’t have audio measuring devices that are much more sensitive than the human ear (both with respect to frequency range and volume).

    Either there’s a real hum, in which case finding the source should be fairly straightforward. Or there’s no hum and it’s all in people’s heads.

    Seems the indications in previous cases are that there’s no hum.

  4. Last week I had a bout of what I thought was Tinnitus, but it was not high pitched. It was a low bass rumbling. I woke up in the morning thinking that a truck was parked in the street outside my house with the engine idling. It didn’t stop, and every time it got quiet wherever I was, I would hear it. The more I thought aout it, the more maddening it became.

    Luckily it stopped.

    I do think it was stress induced, and was there to to serve as a mental distraction from what was stressing me.

    I think it is similar to TMS that Dr. John Sarno talks about in his books.

  5. She only hears it at her house… How about moving? If it drives her crazy, and she can’t sleep, who cares how much the house means to her.

  6. I used to hear a hum like this. Haven’t heard it in a while. Though I don’t discount that the sound came from, say, fluids in my head tweaking my eardrums, I have to say the “in their heads” explanation is a crock.

    Too many people hear the sounds only when they are in a specific location. For instance, I ONLY heard the sound in or around my own house, and only at night. If I slept elsewhere, no sound. My head was with me on many other occasions, ruling out my head as a likely source.

    Scientists are generally dismissive of things that can’t explain or things which are merely inconvenient. They used to say that dogs don’t suffer pain, for example. 10-15 years ago, it was common to hear scoffing at reports of giant squid. Now that they’ve caught a few, it’s accepted. 30 years ago, virus-like proteins were scoffed at – now nearly everyone accepts them as the cause of mad cow.

    While I believe in science and the scientific process, scientists are human beings with all the stupid foibles and predjudices of regular people (more so, judging by my non-insignificant samples).

  7. The intersting part is why so many people are hearing it in a certain geographical location. If it was a spread out phenonmenon, it would seem to make more sense.

  8. She should check that blue police box down the street. I am sure she could find a Doctor nearby who might be able to help her out.

  9. John Pereless say’s Hum Away, Hum along with the external Hum and if it does not stop when you do, go get some Xanax…

  10. I hear a hum occasionally. I have a friend who also hears it.
    It usually bothers me when the US is ramping up some military action. I think it is the ELF sending orders to the subs.
    No, I am not joking.

  11. Has anyone considered that these folks may be sensitive to the ELF or SLF transmissions that various navies use to communicate with submerged subs? Since the wavelength is something like 3000-4000 km and is transmitted through the earth, a carrier wave could theoretically bounce up anywhere on the planet. Perhaps certain subsurface rock/soil structures vibrate sympathetically with the wavelength or otherwise amplify it to the point where some folks can sense it.

  12. Here in Indiana, residents of Kokomo have long complained of similar low-frequency hums.

  13. If anyone has the complete Rolling Stone DVD-ROM, there’s an interesting article circa 1968-70 called “Silence” by Carlos Hagen. It’s about the silence threshold in music and nature, and he talks about the phenomenon of singing deserts.

  14. Ahh.. darn it!

    Just mentioning something like this is enough to cause me to start doing it. My computer fan sounds really loud now….

    It’s like when someone tells you not to think about your breathing and suddenly you find you can’t breathe unless you do it consciously… enjoy.

  15. Either there’s a real hum, in which case finding the source should be fairly straightforward.

    Really? How do you deal with the property of sound where the lower the frequency, the less directional the sound is? That is, the lower the pitch, the less “straighforward” finding the source is.

  16. Every urban environment has its own characteristic ‘ambient’ sound to it. It becomes more apparent during certain times of day or under certain weather conditions. Low clouds, no wind, and cold air can make low frequency sounds carry for miles. Local terrain can influence how the sound travels and where it can be heard the loudest, also. When I was a kid living on Long Island, in the winter under the right conditions, I could hear the LIRR diesel trains running from more than ten miles away. Try stepping outside early on a cool morning when the sky is overcast and there is no wind or rain and just listen to the sounds.

  17. Grew up in Taos, New Mexico. Most of the people who hear the hum are woo-woo’s. You know the type I mean. Charged energy crystals. Contrail conspiracies. Etc.
    I wish my home town was known for something less ridiculous…

  18. But if the hum starts sounding like “All Along the Watchtower,” it probably means that you’re a cylon.

  19. I don’t have a hum, but occasionally, I hear a who…

    Do I have Horton’s Syndrome?

  20. hummm, thanks Soup, I feel special now.
    “A small percentage of the population can actually voluntarily contract this muscle, inducing a noticeable and (until explained) odd ‘rumbling’ sound to occur [3].”

  21. The Who never covered “All Along The Watchtower” to my knowledge. If they had, I’m sure I could hum to it.

  22. I can do the rumbly ear thing too – never realised that not everyone can. It’s neither useful or entertaining. I’ve wondered if it’s the same mechanism that lets some people blow smoke out of their ears – after 5 mins in front of the mirror, I don’t think it is.

  23. I find I can tell whether electrical items are turned on or not based on a kind of non-audible hum that no-one else around me can detect. Best description is that it’s a kind of auditory version of ‘blindsight’, i.e. a kind of quiet high-pitched hum that I know is there, even though I can’t “hear” it per se.

    1. Hands or no, I haven’t been able to open my right Eustachian tube in a month. And, yes, I have tinnitus now.

  24. I always thought that was the sound of blood cells bouncing off my inner ear parts or something along those lines. Happens regularly when I go to sleep. I can make it go away by thinking about it for a second, but i can’t bring it on voluntarily.

  25. When I yawn I hear weird sounds. If I lie on my side with my arm against my ear, sometimes I hear things. I sometimes hear an incredibly loud buzzing noise in one ear, which thank gods goes away quickly.

    And of course, there are voices muttering in my head all the time. This would drive me nuts if they ever spoke any language I understand, or even one I could identify.

  26. and an MRI will hopefully reveal if I have a neuroma in a month or two. How many readers here have tinnitus? Until it hit me last year I had no idea it was so common. And so untreatable. From what I’ve read, it’s all in the brain. I’m pretty sure most of the people referred to in this article just have ordinary tinnitus. A “mystery hum” just makes it easier to accept the arbitrary affliction.

  27. When I was a teen,way out in wilderness woods in the middle of winter one day, there was no wind, no traffic, no planes, no sounds at all.

    Sitting on the snow on a log, I heard the blood pulsing in my ears for the first time.

  28. I’ve had tinnitus for over fifty years. It’s a real jazz band in there. Not to mention dripping water, tiny metal hammers, and a breaking surf that somewhat lessens my Oregon coast homesickness. But it’s not the end of the world; it just sometimes sounds like it.

    The VA docs said it was artillery. I say it was Dizzy Gillespie.

  29. All in the brain? I thought severe tinnitus was caused by certain bands of very small vibration-detecting hairs (not really hairs, but I don’t know the correct word) that get stuck (or damaged away). And as the banding corresponds to frequency, the stuck hairs give a specific tone to the whine.

    I don’t remember the exact details, but the tv spot I saw this on (a technology show) was about using ultrasound (I think, or similar) to unstick the hairs and relieve the annoying sound.

    And I almost certainly will have tinnitus at some point in my later life :(

  30. I’ve had tinnitus occasionally with a really bad cold. Thanks to years of loud music, I’ve got poor frequency response at certain frequencies, but thankfully nothing like this yet.

    I’ve always been puzzled by tinnitus though. My understanding is that the brain is a really good signal processor/filter. If the auditory nerve feeds it a whine at a constant frequency, I assume the brain would try to adapt and filter that frequency. I imagine this would happen the same way you “tune out” the sound of an air conditioner and only become aware that it was on when it shuts off.

  31. Mountain View, CA has a hum. I would hear it at night while it was quiet. My friend who lived 2 streets and 4 blocks away could hear it too at night. So it wasn’t just in my apartment complex. Given that there’s a military base in town…it could be anything the conspiracy theorists can come up with. Or Google..the sounds of thousands of computers and servers humming…

  32. I think ELF communications is a perfectly plausible explanation.

    Uncle Sam must be gearing up for another war again. I wonder who the lucky country is this time? :(

  33. I can hear high and low pitched hums and squeals from a variety of electronic equipment, that is often barely perceptible, or not perceptible at all to others around me.

    I know I’m not insane because turning items on and off starts and stops the noise – and I’ve had other people do it when I wasn’t aware, to test the theory.

    CRTs are the main offenders, but sometimes microwaves and my MacBook Pro churn out the noise. My old eMac is, by far, the worst. It makes me feel like a dog – the pitch makes me nauseous after about half an hour.

    Different pitches can also exacerbate other noises – this Labradford remix of the LFO is a great example. The noise starts about 45 seconds in. Sometimes I hear it and love it, other times it makes me writhe in pain.

  34. as I understand it (ie: not really), the background noise of our own bodies is deafening. The creaking, popping, rustling racket of meat draped on bones and inflated with air with freely irrigated with liquids creates a constant din that our brain software learns and filters. I know hearing can be trained, made more acute by deliberate attention and will, why not then the other way? I’m pretty sure most tinnitus that has no discernible physical cause is created by our brains setting default levels of arousal on the relevant synapses that are too high for the actual auditory environment. (told you “not really”) We ought to be able to reduce this by effort and will. The problem is finding/making a low stress life. There is probably a refractory period but I’m thinking that over time, you should be able to tune down the tinnitus – provided you really believe. Is likely no more difficult than mastering meditation (OK, I’m bitter). Damage to cochlear cilia from say explosive trauma, tumours and disease excepted, we should be able to treat this ourselves. Has anyone done a study of the people afflicted with the hum mentioned above to see how many don’t feel in control of their lives?

  35. Takuan I know a guy who has been a working post sound engineer for 15 years who suffers tinnitus in a certain small band of high frequencies. He does, as you suggest, consciously “filter out” that range as often as he can, in order to do his job properly, but if he comes across a sound that hits a fundamental that is in that range – it all comes flowing back to him. Many times he’s had to defer to the judgement of his junior staff on something that triggers his tinnitus in a big way, because he loses his objectivity completely and needs another pair of ears. It’s interesting to watch though, because he is actually one of the best in his field where he’s from, despite his disability.

    The point of this little analogy is that while it’s true tinnitus sufferers to varying degrees can actually filter out their pain in different ways, it’s almost always exacerbated by external, not internal stimuli. Also, they don’t always have the luxury of doing so depending on what kind of job, or what kind of environment they work in.

    To add weight to your comment though – he does find it MUCH harder to filter out his tinnitus during times of high stress, poor diet, poor sleep, or overexertion, so I think your idea that control of ones life soothes tinnitus is a valid one.

  36. Takuan: I know some think subjective tinnitus is linked with low serotonin levels, which makes sense with my experience. Not feeling in control of one’s life is also something that’s probably going to effect serotonin levels in a similar way. I’m guessing many also have some degree of OCD (not to be confused with OCPD).

    I don’t get tinnitus when I take doxepin (which increases serotonin levels, among other things), although with that I sometimes wake up with what I’m guessing are tensor tympani spasms (which I can also do voluntarily), but they don’t last long.

    Most of the time, though, the only annoying sounds I hear are from my computer. I don’t think it causes the problem. It might not even contribute to it. It may just be another manifestation of the problem — locking onto some noise.

  37. I remember having very vivid nightmares and visions related to a nasty fever I suffered from when I was about 6 years old. The background hum, the sound of silence, if you will, would increase and increase in volume until I screamed with fear. The sound of my own voice would break the circle, and then it would start over..

  38. I haven’t stepped into the ring with anyone in years – but I am quite sure any tinnitus would disappear after the first bow – and return after the second. Concentration matters.

  39. I’m late to this discussion, but I find it fascinating. I’ve been suffering with tinnitus for months now. I keep trying to figure out what triggered it (there are so many suspects)… It seems worse after I wake up… is it connected to tmj; jaw tension? Is it from sleep deprivation? It’s disturbed my sleep. When I wake up from a dream (where everything is mercifully quiet) the ringing starts, and startles me, and my heart starts pounding, so instead of just rolling over and falling back asleep, I lay there in anxiety.
    They say tinnitus is not a disease, but a symptom. In my case, I keep wondering “a symptom of what???”

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