Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Music-Friendly Implant

Read this captivating article on the experience of music via cochlear implant:

What I found most interesting is the difference in music preferences associated with a hearing aid versus a cochlear implant. Sam Swiller, who is featured in the article, preferred lots of drums and bass when he had a hearing aid, but these sounds proved too intense when he switched to the implant. Instead, he says became drawn to folk and alternative music.

I've always wondered if the difference in the musical preferences of my brother (death metal, hard rock, gangster rap) and myself (folk, Celtic, Classical Indian) had less to do with ascribed culture and more with how we hear things. My brother is a bit hard of hearing, and I seem to have a better ear for higher pitches. When my cousin became an interpreter for the deaf, I further wondered about the preferences in music among her friends in the deaf community (they are as particular as anyone else about what music they like to experience).

Personally, I'm easily overwhelmed by sounds. For instance, I can't eat and listen to music at the same time. I even have trouble eating during a particularly enthusiastic thunderstorm. As my interest in improvisational jazz and experimental music grew, I continually had to find ways to experience it without needing to stop after just a few minutes. I've discovered that coffee-house style performances, I can handle. Rock concerts, I cannot. Even with ear plugs. The lights and the vibrations and the sounds are just too much stimulus to take all at once.

Given my personal experience with being overwhelmed by sounds, I can only imagine the adjustment required when switching from hearing aid to implant. As the article states, a cochlear implant is designed to do one thing really well — allow users to understand speech. What it lacks is nuance in relating information about pitch and timbre. Current implants simply leave out much of the information needed to tell the difference between notes that are close together on a keyboard or instruments that sound similar. And while it may not be at the forefront of doctors' and manufacturer's minds, I have to agree that the creation of a "music friendly" implant is certainly worth consideration.

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