(DISCLAIMER: The views below are mine and are not intended to represent how ALL people who are deaf and hard of hearing enjoy music)
An acquaintance recently asked me how I was able to enjoy myself doing things like going to all the musicals that I do, hearing my kids sing or play instruments. I told him that while I might approach how I experience music in a different way than him, it didn’t mean that I couldn’t also enjoy it.
I grew up very musical…I started piano at age 4 (and continued with lessons through high school), eventually added cello, clarinet, the bassoon (ok – only for 3 months) in elementary school and then percussion by the time I was in high school. I got to play in various bands and orchestras, sing in choirs and support musicals by playing in the pit. When it came time to apply to college, I was accepted at one school for Engineering and one for Music. I chose the former.
In college, I joined chorus where I sang alto and sometimes was piano accompaniment and even met my then-boyfriend-now-husband-who-sang-bass in that chorus. We went to concerts, saw shows and listened to bands. I ended up switching my major from Engineering to Audiology because I wanted to use my tech savviness to help deaf/hard of hearing people enjoy music. As part of my coursework in Audiology, I also was required to take a sign language class (which I eventually taught as a grad student). So many ironies, huh?
At age 29, I started losing my hearing due to Autoimmune Inner Ear Disease. Over the course of the next 9 months, I became completely deaf. I used powerful hearing aids for about a year and when those weren’t enough, I got my first cochlear implant and five years later, my second cochlear implant. My CIs have given me back so much of what I was missing including being able to hear soft sounds and understand most speech without lipreading – in ideal listening situations.
Listening in noise is difficult for people with hearing loss in general and while I often appear to be quite successful, I have to work really, really, really hard in those situations.
Another area that is challenging is enjoying music…I can hear music, I can listen to music but enjoying it is NOT automatic. (NOTE: people with normal hearing don’t always enjoy music that is presented to them either.)
What does music sound like to me?
Music is so much more than melodies, harmonies, rhythms, timbres and dynamics. Music is something to be experienced not only by the ears and the brain but also by the eyes, the heart and the soul. Enjoying music is time spent alone with your thoughts and memories or time spent together with friends and family.
My children have been involved with musical theater, choir, band and lately, we have enjoyed listening to live music at outdoor and indoor venues. With my cochlear-implant-aided hearing, do I hear everything like I used to? No. Am I still able to enjoy myself? Absolutely.
Because everyone has different levels of auditory memory and experiences, what I hear can be very different compared to what someone else hears. I was hearing for most of my life and had a very musical background. My ability to hear and process music would be very different than someone, for example, who was born deaf and received a CI as an adult (NOTE: anyone has the potential to enjoy music…we just might enjoy it in different ways).
Here’s a decent sound simulation of what it’s like for me to go hear a rock band:
Normal hearing – https://www.hear-it.org/sites/default/files/sound_files/NORMAL.mp3
*What I feel like I hear with my CIs* – https://www.hear-it.org/sites/default/files/sound_files/Sensorineural_Mild.mp3
In the above example, I tried to demonstrate how I can hear an awful lot but there are parts that are missing or distorted. Add lots of instruments, really loud levels that cause my CIs to go into compression (which distorts sounds even more) and it will sound even worse.
As with many people with CIs, being able to discern melodies is the most difficult. My favorite analogy to use is that while people with normal hearing might be able to hear all 88 keys on a keyboard as someone plays it wearing gloves, what I hear is more akin to someone playing all 88 keys while wearing mittens…I can definitely tell low notes vs. high notes but if the notes are close together or there is a chord, it might sound all jumbled together or one discordant pitch.
Below is a visual representation of what I feel like I hear:
(If the GIF above does not play automatically, go to https://imgflip.com/gif/2h2rxa)
What it represents is what I feel like I am experiencing as I walk into a music venue. At first, nothing makes sense and sounds like noise and I might have no idea what’s playing. As my ears and brain start to warm up and my other senses kick in, things might become more clear. Most of the time, I’m so totally almost there but not quite. Every once in a while though, my ears/brain will catch on and I will be able to identify a song or hear brilliant and clear notes and harmonies.
Tips for Multi-modal Music Enjoyment
Rather than lament the fact that I do not hear music the way I used to, I embrace practices that allow me to enjoy music the way I hear it NOW.
- Talk to your audiologist about getting a “music program”. There are settings that can be adjusted to allow you to access more of the information you need to hear music. If there’s a piece of music that’s especially frustrating for you or you have a favorite piece of music, try bringing a recording to your appointment so you can hear how changes to your program affect how you process it.
- If a venue is especially reverberant or you’re sitting in the back and the sound is distorted by the time it reaches your amplification, consider using hearing assistive technology (a/k/a assistive listening devices). Some venues have designated areas that have a hearing loop and others have personal systems. By using either of these methods, anything that has a mic (i.e., voices or instruments) will directly be transmitted to your amplification, bypassing any echo or reverberation effect.
- Use other hearing assistive technology such as good quality supra-aural headphones, amplified neckloops or streamers to send music directly from your sound source to your amplification. This method can also help to block out competing background noise.
- If you feel like you’re having an especially difficult time even hearing the beat, consider holding an inflated balloon in between your hands and next to your chest so you can “feel” the beat.
- If you have residual hearing, you want to protect it. This gets tricky because you might need louder volumes to hear better. In certain cases though, too much volume will cause you to lose more hearing. Hearing aids and cochlear implants are set so there is a ceiling to how loud something will go but in dangerously loud environments, if you’re not using hearing protection, loudness levels can surpass these ceilings and cause more damage the louder and longer that you listen to it. If your ears are ringing or sounds are muffled after you leave a loud venue, chances are that you have affected your hearing –this can be temporary but with prolonged exposure, it can become permanent. There are also apps that can estimate how loud an environment is and even having warnings when you’re someplace that’s too loud. Go to the tab for Sound Level Meters on “Apps for Kids (and Adults) with Hearing Loss” page (http://bit.ly/Apps4HL-iOS and http://bit.ly/Apps4HL-Android) for some suggestions.
- As a musician, I benefit from being able to read sheet music to follow along. If my daughter is in a musical, I often ask to see the score so I know what it’s supposed to sound like.
- If possible, try and sit close to the music source. I do better when I am able to lipread actors and singers and see their facial expressions. For live music, I can better tell where the melody is going when I can see things like their fingers moving up and down a keyboard or guitar or see how the bows of stringed instruments move up and down.
- Find lyrics online so you don’t have to work so hard on understanding the words and can focus more on melodies and harmonies.
- Use apps on your mobile device like SoundHound, Shazam and MusixMatch to identify artists, songs, albums and lyrics – this works best with recorded music but can sometimes work in live venues.
- If watching something with a lot of dialogue or lyrics, go to or request accommodations such as open or closed captioning, or sign language interpreter(s). (ASIDE: As a signer, I appreciate going with others that sign because not only do we have ease of communication in noisy places or at a distance but we often have fun signing along with the music!)
LISTEN WITH YOUR BRAIN AND YOUR HEART:
- Start with familiar music first. This is already part of your auditory memory – you don’t have to hear every note to recognize this music.
- Did you know that there’s a term for why you love music from the era when you were age 12-22 (i.e., middle school, high school and college)? It’s called “neural nostalgia” and it happens because during that timeframe, your brain is already rapidly developing so what you hear and the emotions that you feel are imprinted in different parts of your cortex.
- When you’re ready to listen to unfamiliar music, try music with strong vocals or primary instruments, and not too many instruments playing at the same time.
Most importantly, don’t be too hard on yourself. Just like learning a new language, hearing music in a different way takes time. With patience and practice, listening to and/or playing music can be enjoyable again.
Article about Neural Nostalgia
Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss
Musicians’ Clinics of Canada