Audiologists and musicians need to work together

Last week, a C, an E-flat, and a G walked into a bar. The bartender said, “Get out of here; we don’t serve minors here.” If you got that joke and found it really funny, then you are a musician, or at least passed your grade 2 theory exams.  If you didn’t find it funny then you either have a well-developed sense of humor or you are not a musician.

Whenever I give talks about musicians and hearing loss the question always arises, “Can I do this if I don’t know anything about music?”  The answer is YES.

Audiologists already know everything they need to know about working with musicians.  The only thing keeping  Audiologists and musicians apart is the jargon (and perhaps a weird sense of humor … although I am not sure who has the weirder sense of humor).  Jargon is everything when it comes to working with musicians.  My philosophy has always been a populist one- musicians don’t need to be referred to me way up in Canada to get the best service that can be offered (and I routinely get phone calls and emails from musicians and also audiologists who want to refer their musician clients to me).  There is absolutely nothing that I can offer a musician that any other audiologist cannot also offer (other than perhaps having a grand piano in my office).

I do offer a free pdf of a book I wrote with the musician in mind, and written at the non-technical (?) level of a musician.  My website is www.musiciansclinics.com, but it is undergoing some updating.  My hearing aid website, however, has the capability for you to click on a pdf of this book, fittingly called Hear the Music.  Go to www.MarshallChasinAssociates.ca for a free download.  Chapter 1 is all about hearing and hearing loss, as well as some jargon that has long kept the two groups apart.  The following is from Chapter 1 of Hear the Music.

The jargon of musicians and scientists has long kept them apart. Musicians call musical notes A, B, and C,… Audiologists working with sounds call them frequencies. For example, 440 Hz (read as 440 Hertz) is the frequency of the “A” on the second space on the treble clef, 494 Hz for the “B”, above it, and 523 Hz for the “C” above that. Middle “C” is 262 Hz and the top note on a piano keyboard is “C” (4186 Hz). They can be used interchangeably and sometimes will be shown as “A (440 Hz)” to represent both the note and the frequency of that note. One convenient advantage of the numerical method is that the number doubles for each octave. That is, an octave above A (440 Hz) is A (880 Hz), and an octave below A (440 Hz) is A (220 Hz).

Some musical notes on a treble clef along with the frequency of their fundmental.

Another bit of jargon that has prevented communication is the decibel. Musicians talk about “forte,” and “piano.” Scientists may talk about 90 decibels (written as 90 dB) and 60 dB. Music played at a forte level is certainly loud, but when measured with a special device for measuring the physical vibration in the air (called a sound level meter), it may be 90 dB for one instrument and musician and 110 dB for another. That is, unlike the musical note and its frequency which are synonymous, loudness judged by a musician (e.g., forte or piano) corresponds only loosely with the physical vibration in the air—the decibel. It is true that a forte passage has a higher decibel reading than one that is played at a piano level, but that is about all that can be said.

The physical measure of sound vibration is called the intensity (measured in dB), whereas the subjective impression of the intensity of the sound is called loudness. Sound level meters can be purchased for less than $100.  There are some apps that can now be downloaded for free (or even the astronomical price of $0.99) that for most purposes are just as good as the more expensive sound level meters.

When talking to musicians, I find it best to ignore the various flavors of decibels and for our purposes, 90 dB is sufficient even though the purists among us would rather use 90 dB SPL or 90 dBA.

The physics of musical instruments is right out of our speech sciences class- musical instruments function as ¼ wavelength resonators (brass, and the lower register of the clarinet), ½ wavelength resonators (violins, viola, guitar, all other stringed instruments that you can think of, and vocals).  Percussion instruments bring us back to Helmholtz and mechanical-related resonators- remember the calculation of the various formant frequencies in mid and high vowels?… straight out of our speech sciences class.

Those of us who work with hearing aids are very familiar with ¼ wavelength resonators- the “1000 Hz” peak in behind-the-ear hearing aids is a ¼-wavelength resonator.  And what about the 3000 Hz resonance in all modern hearing aids that use a class D receiver? Well, that’s a mechanical resonance of the receiver diaphragm.  So, the physics of the 1000 Hz hearing aid resonance explains trumpets and the lower register of the clarinet; and the 3000 Hz receiver-related hearing aid resonance explains percussion.

Remember our vocal chords?  They are held tightly at both ends, much as the strings of a violin or a guitar are held tightly at both ends. This scenario functions as a ½ wavelength resonator, replete with integer multiples of the fundamental.  Sounds familiar?

In short, there is nothing more that we need to know when we work with musicians.  We have already learned everything in our speech sciences and our hearing aid classes.  The rest is just an issue of confidence.   And it’s OK to say “I don’t know.” We learned how to say that in our quantum physics or combinatorial mathematics class.

 

About Marshall Chasin

Marshall Chasin, AuD, is a clinical and research audiologist who has a special interest in the prevention of hearing loss for musicians, as well as the treatment of those who have hearing loss. I have other special interests such as clarinet and karate, but those may come out in the blog over time.

3 Comments

  1. Two over-served musicians walking down the street late at night after their gig. Hear a bell from a church ringing the hour. “What the hell was that?” asked the first musician. “I’m not sure,” said the second, ” . . .E Flat?”

    Sorry.

  2. Excellent article! I’ll be sharing this one for sure. (Oh, and I laughed – that either makes me a musician or weird, and I’m a little bit of both!)

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