The Elusive Sound of Music

Hearing aids and cochlear implants are designed to maximize speech comprehension, which is as it should be. But for many of us, this means compromising on one of life’s joys, music.music-notes-on-staff-clipart-dT6XGz8T9

As Natalie Angier wrote in an article in Science Times last week, “In international surveys, people consistently rank music as one of life’s supreme sources of pleasure and emotional power. We marry to music, graduate to music, mourn to music.”

She also noted that Americans listen to music four hours a day.

The inability to hear and appreciate music is one of the most frustrating aspects of hearing loss. While hearing aids and cochlear implants are designed to maximize our speech comprehension, they are inadequate to the task of reproducing the fidelity of the human ear when it comes to music.

Part of this has to do with digital versus analog hearing aids. Audiologist and author Marshall Chasin, director of auditory research at the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada, has explained that the old-fashioned analog hearing aid was nowhere near as good as the newer digital hearing aids for speech, but it was better for music listening.

It also has to do with the wide range of sound in music. “Human speech is generally between 30 decibels and 85 decibels, giving it a range of about 50 decibels,” says Lisa Packer, a staff writer for Healthy Hearing. “Music, however, has a range of about 100 decibels. Hearing aids simply aren’t designed to efficiently process such a wide range of sound.”

So what can you do? Chasin has this practical advice for hearing aid users:

  • For recorded music, turn down the volume on the source and turn up your hearing aid. Turning up the volume on, say, a car radio just causes distortion of the incoming signal.

  • Use an FM system, and plug it into the direct audio input jack. This also helps reduce the distortion that results from turning up the source of the sound.

  • In a live-music venue, muffle the microphone on your hearing aid. Try a scarf or earmuffs over your hearing aid or wear a hat, or you can try Chasin’s trick: Scotch tape. He tells his patients to take several layers of tape and place it over the microphone. This decreases the distortion. “It is low-tech, but it works really well,” he says.

  • Take off the hearing aid. Music is inherently louder than speech, and if you have moderate hearing loss, you may be able to hear without amplification and without distortion.

  • For those with cochlear implants, some of these suggestions might work, although not the last one. Most people have little to no residual hearing after a cochlear implant, so simply taking the device off would leave you with no sound.

From my own experience, a visual component always improves the musical listening experience. For example

  • Vocal music with captions (whether live opera or YouTube) will help you to “hear” the sung words in a way that you can’t without that visual clue.

  • Reading lips is not a solution because singing distorts the mouth, but watching a singer can help with comprehension simply because of body language and facial expression.

  • With orchestral music, the kind most difficult for me to follow live — and impossible to follow as recorded music — I find that if I focus on a key player it helps to make the music a bit more comprehensible. This is easier with an instrument where you can see the player’s hands and body movements — a piano or cello, for instance. I can’t follow the fingering of a flute or piccolo in any useful way.

I refuse to give up on music, so I accept it even with compromises. It’s far better than no music at all.

18 thoughts on “The Elusive Sound of Music

  1. Some good ideas here, but if I can suggest another for hearing aid wearers who are comfortable with tech: Remove your hearing aids, put them someplace safe and use your smart phone and earphones as an amplifier. It has better sound than hearing aids and you can find great earphones, special mics, and terrific apps that let you tailor the sound to your liking. (This will not work for CI users, sorry.)

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      • Sometimes yes, sometimes no. You may need to add a very high quality headphone amp to your rig. I’ll go out on a limb and say that the sound quality of equipment matters a great deal – even with and possibly especially with severe hearing losses. The sound quality of a common smartphone is typically higher (on objective measurements like distortion and frequency response) than hearing aids. And often much higher.

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  2. I sometimes think that loosing the ability to hear music is the most devastating result of hearing loss. I have tried many of the remedies that have been suggested to no avail. My profound asymmetrical loss qualifies for a cochlear implant which is in the approval phase now. I am told this will help. There comes a time when understanding is the primary focus for one’s life. In much the same way that I simply avoid musical venues and situations I find that I avoid situations where I am supposed to understand what others are saying. This is not healthy.

    Withdrawal is a debilitating action in and of itself. I know that. For me, music has become a distraction, an irritant rather than a balm. Communication with another human being, however, is essential to wellbeing and happiness. If life would present me with conversations with one person at a time who, incidentally, sounded like Walter Cronkite, I would score 100% in understanding. Alas, life is not that accommodating and, by the way, is becoming noisier every day.

    Whatever the outcome of my quest for more effective hearing “hardware”, the most significant challenge for me is not whether I can once again appreciate music but whether I can participate fully in a conversation with friends and attend gatherings as a participant who understands the words. That would be music to my ears, indeed!

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    • Jerry, So sad!
      I hope the cochlear implant helps — you have to work at it every day, doing the exercises. but it’s worth it.
      Meanwhile I see you live in Staten Island. Come to one of our HLAA Chapter meetings. We have a great local group — we meet 3rd Tuesday of every month. Email info@hearinglossnyc.org and I’ll give you all the information. I’m the president of the chapter and I can’t tell you how much it’s meant to me to find so many other people with similar issues. Plus — our meetings are captioned, looped, and sometimes even ASL-interpreted. One of the great things about the meetings is being able to understand every word. Our next meeting is March 15. The speaker will be musician Richard Einhorn, talking about technology. Hope you can come!

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  3. Katherine – Thank you for your comment and invitation. I would love to attend your HLAA meeting. However, I live in Maine! Puzzling. Can’t imagine how I got to Staten Island! Sadly, there is no HLAA chapter in Maine. That kind of support would be good to have.

    Meanwhile, I find your blog and that of Shari Eberts and more, to be valuable assets. Knowing that there are many others with the same or similar issues confronting them every day is comforting, and real information sharing is important. So I contribute from time to time and it gives me a sense of community.

    Sadly #2, it will be up to those of us who suffer some degree of hearing loss to keep this community vital. Audiologists – upon whom I have depended for the past 18 years have simply failed to provide information that would have enhanced my hearing and understanding experience. So when I began searching for an accessory to wake me up in the night in case of an emergency I stumbled upon a world of helpful items and resources. When I asked my audiologist why he didn’t tell me about these resources he said that there was no money in it. He, by the way, had never heard of HLAA! Of course, I could have become curious sooner. I will not make that mistake again.

    Thank you again for your advocacy.

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  4. Hi Katherine,

    I wondered if you knew Carol Padden, who’s getting an honorary degree at Swarthmore this May when I do.

    Best,

    Leo

    ________________________________

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  5. My favorite method of listening to music is to remove my hearing aids and plug my ear buds into my laptop. I can turn it up as loud as necessary and it almost sounds normal. I have also been playing with a streamer pro (connected to my opticon aids). I love plugging it into my iPhone and streaming music. The quality is not as good as my laptop but it allows me to listen in the car. If I stick to music that know, I can usually ignore any crackles or static that may happen. It has the capability of blue tooth but I can’t hear the music loud enough that way. Thanks for bringing this up. Loss of music was one of the things I regretted the most.

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  6. Try listening to guitar presentations by Estes Tonne. For me it delivers exceptionally. Since needing hearing aids there isn’t much music I can really enjoy.

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  7. My frustration is that I keep running into situations where the hearing aid distorts the music. In my case the music is distorted with or without the hearing aids – They make no difference. I am a musician and 90% of my life’s pleasure is/was in playing, singing, dancing and listening. I can no longer do any of them. I need to know 1) If there is any help/hope for me, and 2) How do I find the help if there is any, given all the places/people that say they can help but just end up trying to sell me a set of $5000 hearing aids – Any hope?

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    • A couple of thoughts. One is that you might try music-oriented aural rehabilitation. If you tell me where you live (you can email me at katherinebouton@gmail.com) I might be able to suggest a place.
      Second. for most people rhythm is what doesn’t get distorted — so many people can still dance, even if they don’t really “hear” the music.
      Third you can work on self training rehab by watching video of music with captions — This doesn’t help for orchestral music but it can help with anything with a verbal component.

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