“What sound would you miss most if you couldn’t hear it anymore?” I ask this to elementary students receiving Sound Sense, a presentation on hearing loss prevention.
“Music!” they yell. They are smart kids, because people with acquired hearing loss often mourn for the ability to enjoy music as they once did.
Music is in my blood, and it’s a source of both joy and grief. When all the hearing-music gods are aligned, I can listen with pleasure. But when hearing barriers kick in, it can be emotionally painful.
I’m a descendant of song-and-dance men and hymn-singing preachers, but I can’t carry a tune. My mother said I had the unique ability to sing a four-line song in four different keys. I attributed this to my hearing loss, until I met hard of hearing people with perfect pitch. (Damn them!) But I sing anyway, and guess what? I sound great to me!
Singing is one thing, listening is another. Making out the lyrics is often impossible, because I can’t understand words if I can’t see them. Background instruments turn lyrics into soup, so through the years I have unconsciously developed my own lyrics for favourite songs, most of which are nonsense and bear no resemblance to the song title.
I discovered the power of print translation, one glorious day when I was 10. Inside a boxed set of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”, I found the complete libretto along with the recordings. What a treasure! For the first time in my life, I could understand the music, following along with my very own script, drinking in every note and word.
Although it would be years before I saw printed lyrics again, I soon found another way to ‘get the words’ – through the lips of my sister Louise. We would lie on the floor by the radio, face to face, and I would make her sing along with the songs. Once I saw the words on her lips, they made complete sense from then on. This process wasn’t as meaningful for my sister, however, and I sometimes had to lie on her to make her sing. Or I’d play the poor-hard-of-hearing-kid card, and put up such a fuss that my mom would yell, “Louise, sing to your sister this minute!”
Orchestral music has always been a joy, even when my hearing can’t differentiate the instruments; I need a strong melody line. If the violins or flutes carry the melody too high, the music seems to just disappear until the notes “come back down”. When I go to the symphony, I find myself watching the musicians’ physical movements to see who is producing which sounds – it’s somewhat like reading lips.
Hearing aids and assistive technology have given me new access to music, although discerning the lyrics and different instruments is still difficult. I can take walks listening to my MP3 player via a neckloop (avoiding hydro lines which cause buzzing ), and listening to music in the car has always been easier because of its surround-sound effect.
With better hearing, I have new breath-stopping moments of music. My young son was playing classical guitar and I sat close by, watching him. I heard every note. The beauty ripped through me in waves and I was grateful, once again, for the power of music. And, once again, I grieved briefly for all the beautiful music that is just beyond the reach of my hearing.
Marshall Chasin is the go-to-guy for music and hearing loss on this site. Read his blogs and hear the music again.