The new movie Baby Driver has a very good soundtrack comprising a heavy mix of funk and rock. Viewers are lead to presume that it isn’t just the film’s score but is the actual music that plays through the titular character’s earbuds. Baby, the getaway driver, constantly listens to music because of an accident he had as a child that caused him to develop an audiological and neurological condition called tinnitus — a constant, annoying ringing in the ears. It doesn’t stop until Baby puts in his earbuds.
The reality is that while Baby’s musical choice of treatment makes for a really good movie, it’s actually not the best option for an actual person with tinnitus.
Approximately 50 million Americans have tinnitus, which manifests as the perception of sound when there’s no actual noise. This noise varies across people with tinnitus and can sound like ringing, hissing, buzzing, whistling, or clicking. It can be a temporary condition or a chronic issue, and it’s categorized into two main types: subjective and objective. Subjective tinnitus is typically an auditory and neurological reaction that comes from hearing loss, while objective tinnitus is a very rare condition where ear and head noises are caused by the body’s blood flow and musculoskeletal movements.
To date, there’s no scientifically validated cure for tinnitus. And just as the causes of tinnitus vary widely (exposure to loud noises, Meniere’s disease, and brain tumors are just some of the instigations), so do the methods that people use to treat it. Some of the ways patients manage their condition include hypnotherapy, hearing aides, and hearing protection tools, like ear plugs and canal caps.
Another way people manage tinnitus is through sound therapy — but not in the same way that Baby uses it. Instead of rock, funk, and jazz, people use white noise, pink noise, nature sounds, and other ambient noises to drown out the buzzing. According to the American Tinnitus Association, sound therapy is a broad term that either masks or distracts the noises associated with tinnitus, generally lowers the intensity of its symptoms.
Specialized machines have been created to help with tinnitus sound therapy. For example, some machines push out customized, low-frequency sounds that actually mimic the same noise patients hear from their tinnitus, conditioning them to simply get used to the sound. Others send out sequences of low-volume tones play for a long period of time. This “tinnitus-masking sound generator” has “24 tracks including doctor-developed instrumental melodies, nature sounds such as the ocean and rain, and various white-noise frequencies.” Not quite the same as R.E.M., but it will probably help more.
Researchers say that sound therapy helps (although again, it’s not a cure) because additional noise reduces the contrast between the sounds that come with tinnitus and the general noise of the world. When scientists from Bristol University studied 553 adults with tinnitus, they found that sound therapy was actually much more efficient when paired with other forms of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy and acupuncture.
While there’s currently no cure for tinnitus, researchers are pursuing experimental therapies, including repetitive transcranial magnet stimulation, deep brain stimulation, and brain surface implants — electrodes that are surgically installed on the exterior of the brain. Ideally, these will one day help real people similar to Baby. In the meantime, the rest of us get to benefit from his excellent, if not medically-sound, music taste.