What Music Sounds Like with a Cochlear Implant
When I was going through the cochlear implant evaluation process, one of my dad’s chief concerns was my ability to appreciate music with the new device. He’s been a music connoisseur his whole life. In his office, you’ll find shelves and shelves of old CDs and records, speakers and album covers. That summer, he was crushed when I was unable to understand Lyle Lovett at his live show at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. He wanted me to have every opportunity to enjoy the songs he did, but he knew with a cochlear implant I would not be able to hear the same pitches as someone with normal hearing.
Contrary to popular belief, cochlear implants do not restore natural hearing or “cure deafness.” Cochlear implants do help people with hearing loss to experience sound by electronically simulating their auditory nerves. But the sound they experience is limited to what their CI’s speech processor and electrodes can provide. More information on how cochlear implants can be found in this blog post.
At this time, most CI speech processors filter and process sound into approximately 12 to 22 frequency bands that cover the normal range of speech sounds. Each electronic frequency code is sent to a different location in the cochlea to determine pitch. While this programming has come a long way since cochlear implants were introduced, the coding simply cannot process sound the same way the human ear’s 15,000 hair cells can. To put it simply, a lot of slightly different pitches can end up processed the same way by a cochlear implant.
Before I got the cochlear implant, my surgeon said the sound would be like comparing acoustic guitar to electric guitar. My hearing with a hearing aid had a richness of tone like an acoustic guitar. My hearing with a cochlear implant has the clarity of tone of an electric guitar.
When my cochlear implant was turned on, none of that made sense.
The sound coming from my implant was like a combination of robots, frogs and squeaks. I couldn’t differentiate my parents voices. I could tell when someone was talking but I didn’t hear the difference in sound between an “eeee” or an "ahhh.” The sound of my wet rubber boots against the clinic’s linoleum floor sounded the same as when my audiologist said my name. It was exhausting. The last thing I wanted to do at that time was listen to music with my cochlear implant.
Below is a video of me practicing sound discrimination with and without lipreading on my cochlear implant activation day. As you can tell - I have a long way to go.
But, luckily for me, the brain is elastic. As the days went on, my brain learned how to process different sounds and pitches with the implant. It can take up to two years for a person’s brain to learn how to process sounds with a cochlear implant. But, I started listening to music after the first month of cochlear implant use.
At first, everything sounded terrible - like Tom Waits at his most gravelly, industrial, ghoulish, monstrous voice with constant radio static. I went to a Jason Isbell concert around that time, and even he sounded like Tom Waits.
My surgeon said to fight through it, to listen to all of my favorite music with the cochlear implant until it made sense. It took two or three months of hellish bus rides listening to staticy wannabe Tom Waits music on my way to work every day, but eventually music started to sound good again.
I preferred music with my hearing aid ear for about eight months after my cochlear implant activation. But then, music took on new meaning. I realized I was getting more out of music with my cochlear implant ear, not in harmony - but in lyric.
For most of my life, I hadn’t been able to follow the lyrics of songs without captions. Even in grade school choir, I couldn’t understand exactly what my classmates were singing and would mouth random words with my lips. Creating and understanding music was so frustrating, I got out of any required music classes by middle school. I doubled up on gym classes instead.
With my cochlear implant, songs are so much more meaningful and interesting. I can understand when a musician is singing about love for a woman or love for his child. I can hear the poetry in songs that I couldn’t recognize before. I can laugh when I hear a witty quirk in a song, like when Randy Newman sings about short people.
I keep finding myself going back to songs I listened to before my cochlear implant surgery and better understanding the meaning behind the song. I also find myself pointing out lyrics of songs that even my husband doesn’t notice.
While the cochlear implant doesn’t give me the same low and high tones of music as natural hearing, it is designed with speech in mind. That makes it a great processor for great lyricists like John Prine, Paul Simon, and yes - even Tom Waits.
That said, I can still appreciate the beauty of acoustic voices and melody of artists like Jason Isbell and First Aid Kit. It’s just not the same as normal hearing. What I hear is mostly in the speech ranges of frequency. My implant will hear some guitar, but it won’t pick up some high pitched cymbal in the background.
Parents of children with newly diagnosed hearing loss often fear difficulties being able to relate or communicate with their child. While music sounds different with an implant, plenty of recipients are able to enjoy it, even if they had normal hearing previously. Today, my dad and I are able relate to music in a new way. Pitches and tones may be different, but lyrics are the same for both of us. What more could a dad that loves Tom Waits want for his daughter?