Music Appreciation – Caveats and Limitations

As we all know, music holds a special meaning and connection for each and every individual who listens to it. We all have our own personal preferences to how we like our music to sound and whether we want to hear more bass than treble, more vocals than instrumental, and so on. Each and every one of us has our own personalized “equalization setting” of choice.

This is one of the great things about music. Not only can we make it “our own”, but we can use it to convey a magnitude of information. How many times have you heard only a couple seconds of your favorite song and you immediately thought of a time or place – or how you felt – and instantly it takes you out of your current environment and transports you to another world? So what happens when you lose your hearing? How does music sound then?

Clarinetist Performance

For a very long time, hearing aid manufacturers have been researching and devoting time and money into developing and creating the best possible music experience for hearing aid wearers. Many different studies have identified the different demands for hearing speech vs. music through hearing aids: “Hearing aids are designed to maximize speech audibility, but this approach is not optimal for music. Speech and music have several acoustical differences”. The complexity and difficulty behind ‘fine tuning’ program characteristics in a hearing aid to meet the needs of millions of wearers who all have very individual tastes and preferences to music is a large undertaking – but none the less, a very important one.

However, I have become more curious about what goes on when you wear a hearing aid while playing music. Not necessarily only listening to music, but the physical act of playing an instrument – from woodwind to horn, string to percussion – how do the needs and demands change for someone who is wearing hearing aids then? What components are effected? Are there negative consequences on their ability to confidently perform and play their musical instrument? Are the hearing aids doing a good enough job to allow them to comfortably wear them while playing? Or do they simply take them out all together? And what happens if – when wearing their hearing aids to perform, instruments are amplified and the orchestra is loud – are they over-amplified?

All of these questions are valid and just as important as the other. Listening to music is a primal skill. When we are hearing music it is the perception of sound, however when we listen to music we then start to assign meaning to the sound. Some say that music came before language. A research study from Brandt and colleagues in 2012 stated that music underlies the ability to communicate – that spoken language is a type of music itself. Infants hear sounds and discriminate sounds of language, such as the musical aspects of speech. Young infants start to perceive speech as intentional and repetitive ‘vocal performance’ – listening for emotional content as well as rhythms and phonemic content, leading to the later meaning of the word.

So what does this all mean? Where am I going with this? This all adds up to my increasing affection and appreciation for the vastly complicated and intricate ways we approach music not only as hearing aid manufacturers, but as audiologists, and hearing aid wearers, as music connoisseur, etc.

Simply said, there is no “one size fits all” approach to the amplification of music through hearing aids. There are so many variables that will affect the way someone with AND without a hearing loss hears music that we need to step back and appreciate just how far the hearing aid industry has come in approximating what it thinks is the ‘right way’ to process music.

We also need to appreciate that music – whether we realize it or not – is the foundation to our communication. Without any language we can still effectively communicate how we are feeling, what we want to say, and get our point across with a simply melody, harmony or dissonance. Furthermore, we need to realize that for the 10+ years that engineers have been trying to fine tune and develop a hearing aid that recreates the natural sound qualities and characteristics of music, we still have a very long way to go.

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