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.
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.