Unheard Melodies Can Still Be Sweet

Gael Hannan
February 3, 2014

Editor’s Note:  This week, I am delighted to welcome as guest blogger Katherine Bouton is the author of “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I — and 50 Million Other Americans — Can’t Hear You,” which has just been reissued in paperback with a new introduction. She speaks and writes as an advocate for those with hearing loss, and she is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Hearing Loss Association of America.  Katherine writes a a regular blog for Psychology Today called What I Hear.

It’s no secret that hearing aids and cochlear implants are not good for listening to music. For professional musicians, and for professional music lovers like producers and music critics, the distortion can make it almost impossible to enjoy music. People with hearing loss will find it easiest to perceive rhythm. Pitch is much more elusive and some implant users can’t identify even an octave change. Timbre, the quality of the sound – the information that allows you to distinguish between a clarinet and oboe – is the hardest of all for cochlear implant users.

I interviewed many musicians when I was researching “Shouting Won’t Help,” my book about adult-onset hearing loss. Perhaps the most heartbreaking was Isaiah Jackson, an American-born conductor who now teaches conducting at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. After an initial high-frequency loss – noise-induced damage from the flutes and piccolos – he went on conducting, using visual clues as aids. “If the concertmaster is at the tip of the bow,” he said, “then all the strings need to be at the tip.” But a further hearing loss exacerbated the problem with pitch. “Everything above Middle C shifted up. It sounded terrible.” In 2006 he decided that the distortion of the sound was so painful that there was no point in going on. “Enough,” he said. “I need to do something else.”

Another musician experienced the same pitch problem. Ben Luxon is a British baritone. He described singing Papageno with the English National Orchestra. “The soprano, when I was singing the duet with her, that beautiful duet in Act 1, once she got above an F or a C, her voice split like a cat yowling.”

I was a music lover before I lost my hearing. I think the inability to hear a great piece of music is probably the most damning effect of my hearing loss. I can live without being able to hear in noise or to hear a whisper or to participate in my own dinner table conversation. But sometimes I don’t think I can live without music.

I got my cochlear implant four years ago. At first I threw up my hands in despair and simply gave up music. But gradually I went to work on it. And gradually I’ve learned to listen to music in a new way.

My favorite form of music was opera. Opera is almost always subtitled and oddly – since this is such a complex and refined form of music – opera was the music I first came back to. Opera is also multidimensional – in addition to music there are lyrics, there’s acting, there’s scenery and costumes. I still can’t listen to a recording of opera. Without all those other clues, it’s just noise. But I can enjoy a live performance, and I love the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD performances. (So does Ben Luxon.) The sound may be nothing like the sound in the opera house, but that doesn’t matter to me because I can’t hear it anyway. But with close-ups and captions and the ability to study a great singer’s face, the music itself becomes more comprehensible.

For those same reasons, an orchestral concert is not rewarding, and I never go to them. No visual cues. Kevin Liebe wrote an essay last week on spiritual deprivation as a victim of hearing loss. He was discussing mostly the difficult acoustics in many places of worship and the inability to hear the prayers and sermons. But for me, the spiritual aspect most affected by hearing loss is church music. I can hear it in my head. But there’s no way I can hear it with my ears.

It was Geoff Plant at the Hearing Rehabilitation Foundation in Somerville, Mass., who first clued me into the importance of captions. He went on his computer and played Johnny Cash singing “I Walk the Line.” I had no idea what I was listening to. But then Plant played the same video with captions and I could not only hear every word, but I could also get a sense of the music itself. Plant tells his auditory rehab patients to listen to music this way and they will gradually get better and better at hearing music.

One of my favorite TV shows in the past few years is HBO’s “Treme,” about New Orleans after Katrina. I watch it with captions. This means I can follow the New Orleans accents and the overlapping dialogue. But much more important it means that the music comes alive for me. New Orleans is and always has been all about music, and so is “Treme.” I’ve gotten some of my greatest pleasure from music in the past few years watching it on TV with captions. Again, the sound isn’t great. But I can’t hear it anyway.

And then there’s the car. I live in Manhattan and have a house in Western Massachusetts. It’s a three-hour drive and I do it almost every week, usually alone now that my kids are grown up. For years the length of the drive evaporated into the pleasure of listening to three hours of Don Carlo, or Mahler’s 4th symphony, or catching the Tanglewood concert on Friday nights as I drove. Sometimes I would stay in the car even after I got there to hear the end of a piece.

After my hearing dropped in 2009 to profound in one ear and severe in the other, I gave up music in the car. It didn’t mean anything to me. But then I discovered Pandora. And because of Pandora I discovered new kinds of music that I could hear. I can hear blues and gospel, I can hear anything with a strong beat or a single powerful voice (Mahalia Jackson), I can hear R & B. I can distinguish the Rolling Stones from Bruce Springsteen by the way the drummer plays. I can’t hear the music. But I can hear a form of music. And Pandora tells me what I’m listening to on the screen where the radio is. It tells me the name of the song (which often helps figuring out the lyrics), the performer, the album, and the length.

Pandora’s great feature is that you can do a thumbs down if you don’t like the music and its algorithms eventually figure out what you like and don’t like. I can’t do that while I’m driving, but I’ve still discovered music I’d never listened to before as one song led to another. You can skip a song – maybe that’s the equivalent of a thumbs down.

I haven’t had the opportunity to hear a concert in a looped environment, but that’s something I really look forward to. Will I be able to hear orchestral music again? Will I be able to hear pitch and timbre? Will I be able to experience once again the soaring spiritual emotion that a great piece of music can invoke? I hope so.

One last thing I miss is singing. A friend just joined a chorus and she wrote me about the first evening.

It was so much fun. We started with an old round in shape-note singing: Welcome Welcome Every guest/welcome to our music feast. Then we sang “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” a medieval Icelandic hymn (in Icelandic, which made it doubly challenging), a weird mysterious piece by Arvo Part called “Solfeggio” that just seemed to hang there beautifully in the air., and “I’ll Fly Away.”  A great mix.

Not for me, I’m afraid. But I do sometimes sing in the car, to the amusement of my dog. He’s okay with Christmas carols or old Peter, Paul and Mary songs. But when I try “Dona Nobis Pacem,” “Jerusalem,” or “O Holy Night” he just looks puzzled. Possibly even pained.

  1. Are you aware of any conventions/seminars sponsored by the hearing aid community who are prepared to display their latest in technological devices that they manufacture or have gleened from the rest of the scientific world for display for our hearing benefit.
    If so, when and where.

    1. Mickey, there is a workshop at the CHHA Conference this year about accessing smartphone technology to help with communication. There will also be manufacturer booths as well, and the Canadian Hearing society. Royal York Hotel, Toronto, May 22-24, 2014

  2. Your article struck a chord, which I can still hear, but not for long. As my hearing continues to deteriorate, I fill my days with as much music as I can, listening, singing, and playing the bassoon, a low instrument with a range below 1000 hertz, which I recently picked up at age 65. I will put off getting a cochlear implant as long as I can. I get comfort, solace and practical help from the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss (www.aamhl.org). I hope I can be as positive with the downword spiral of my hearing as Katherine.

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