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How hearing rehabilitation can help deaf musicians

hearing rehabilitation for musicians

Hearing loss is an especially unique and tragic experience for anyone who enjoys listening to music, playing an instrument or singing, as part of their daily rituals or professional career.

Most of us carry in our muscles and memories  a library of musical sounds, melodies, rhythms, phrases, motifs, and lyrics from simple folk tunes to classical and every modern popular musical form. We depend on music to provide familiar, comforting, exciting, memorable, life-changing, direct and background touches to our lives.

After hearing loss, music can become painful to listen to, distorted, out of pitch, excessively loud and/or soft. Mixed with tinnitus, as it often is, recapturing music in our lives poses daunting challenges and few promises from the experts.

Fortunately today, the issues of music and hearing loss are more and more being taken up by specialists in the hearing fields.

My experience with musical aural rehabilitation

Modern research. technology and therapies are being employed to provide an advanced kind of musical aural rehabilitation. Focused on recapturing music for those with hearing loss,  work is going into helping us where possible to rebuild our musical selves.

In 2009, I received my first digital hearing aid and my musical world began to reopen. My hearing aid allowed me to do several things starting with rolling off some of the processing intended for clear speech comprehension to give me a wider and flatter frequency response. I began to hear more musical tones than I had heard in decades and sounds that I had believed were gone forever.

The technology helped, but it was the building of a team of specialists that provided an advanced primer on musical hearing rehabilitation that has helped me to start getting music back into my life.

“…it was the building of a team of specialists that provided an advanced primer on musical hearing rehabilitation that has helped me to start getting music back into my life.”

My hearing rehabilitation team

Over the course of seven years I have been able to connect with an audiologist who guides me through hearing aids and assistive listening devices. Another audiologist has fitted me with special ear monitors that I can use on stage and in the studio. My hearing rehab specialist, a musician and singer himself, works with me on focused listening exercises that improve my speech comprehension. And my vocal coach has helped me to get my voice, breathing, facial muscles and music memory back into play. They are my hearing rehabilitation infrastructure.  Together they are helping me to connect the dots of my musical self.

Things to know about music and hearing loss

  1. Relearning music with hearing loss is not like learning music from the beginning. It involves developing a new set of skills including more focused listening, visualization, vocalizing and getting your technology right.
  2. Hearing aids and Cochlear Implants (CI’s) are good for transmitting “information” through speech. But music transmits emotion and the signals used to hear speech and music are very different and both have their limitations.
  3. This means that the technology adjustments to our Hearing aids and CI’s for each of us will be different and very specific.
  4. Many of the challenges with music issues come in our interactions with our audiologist who may or may not have any experience trying to translate music signals for an HA or CI user. We use a different language and vocabulary to explain the musical experience.
  5. Ear pieces are made of silicone or acrylic and can move in the ear causing the piece to rock in and out in the process of speaking or singing.
  6. A stable ear piece is critical to the consistent enjoyment of music.

With this knowledge you can start to rebuild your musical experience with the help of a team of specialists. Along with them you will play an important role through the things you do consistently.

Getting started

There are a few common steps when beginning with hearing rehabilitation, with a focus on music. This is my experience, but work with your professional team to find the best process for you. 

  1. Create a musical hearing rehabilitation team and ask a lot of questions.
  2. Know your frequencies: Get an assessment of the range of frequencies that you can and cannot hear. The audiologist will use this to adjust your hearing aids and it will help you understand why you hear the way you do and where your focus might be when listening to music or trying to play and sing.
  3. Explore hearing aids that provide a set of programs/channels that can reduce and/or roll off processing to give you a wider range of frequencies that you can gain access to. As it did with me it may help you hear more musical tones and pitches than your hearing aid does in the “speech mode.”
  4. Check your current tech and do not expect an old hearing aid to do the job for you musically. Get the right tech with the right settings and programs and return to your audiologist regularly to make adjustments. The right aid will give your brain the best chance to adapt and adjust what it can. And change your filters regularly and have fresh batteries on hand.

Then do this:

  1. Do Listening Exercises: Get involved in aural rehab that involves focused listening exercises. (There are also apps you can use, or programs such as audiobooks, but work with a specialist ) It turns out that the right listening exercises help your speech comprehension which in turn helps your musical hearing. It’s a brain thing. The ears listen but the brain hears.
  2. Practice Daily: Listen to music every day as part of your personal rehab work. This not only lets the brain hear and allows the music to stir the emotions, but it helps to reawaken your musical muscle memory.
  3. Choose the right music:  As a starting point, my hearing rehab specialist recommends that we listen to music with these characteristics: He calls this the “FAVORS” protocol: familiar, auditory and visual (you can watch the performers making music and read their faces, lips and body language), open minded (listening to varieties of music) rhythmic (rhythm is a very good way to inject yourself into the music), and simple, e.g. start by listening to accessible music, solo instruments, small ensembles. Polyphony and harmony are more complex and more challenging.
  4. Know your hearing aid settings: Play your instrument and know which setting on your hearing aid or cochlear implant is best for listening – and be careful of the volume. Flat/open settings ratchet up the volume. I often play the piano and guitar one note at a time as a listening exercise then a scale, then a chord, maybe an arpeggio – over and over again. I continue to do this as a warm up before practicing or performing. I often close my eyes and just let the brain hear without being distracted visually. 
  5. Be patient: Work with a vocal coach and rediscover the music that’s inside you. No matter your loss, it’s there. When I started singing again I realized I had forgotten correct breathing technique. Breathing incorrectly does not allow me to hold a note for very long or to find and sustain pitch. Singing also presents musical tones in a very physical and visceral way, providing another connection to the notes I’m looking for. A kind of “lining things up” within.

Finally, a note from experience 

My team and my tech are critical components of my music hearing rehabilitation.  But equally important are my own efforts. Regaining a positive musical hearing experience comes in great part from your passion for music and your willingness to do whatever it takes to augment and sustain it.  

“Regaining a positive musical hearing experience comes in great part from your passion for music and your willingness to do whatever it takes to augment and sustain it.”  

Work with your team. Enjoy the journey. And find your musical self again.

Author Details
Stu Nunnery is a professional writer, musician, composer, actor and activist. In 2013 he began a years-long journey to return to making music after a bilateral hearing loss ended a successful career forty-five years ago. Taking advantage of cutting-edge technology, auditory training and vocal work, he resumed performing in 2017 and made his first new recording in 2018. Recently, Stu also completed a screenplay about his musical journey. A graduate of Princeton University, Stu has studied piano, voice, acting, improvisation and public speaking. He is a member of the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss, and for his activism, is a Phonak “hEARo” and a “HearStrong Champion.”