What does music sound like through auditory implants?

John ZechMPR/APM

May 14, 2019

This week's Decomposed podcast delves into Ludwig van Beethoven's hearing loss and how it affected his composing. But what does music sound like to modern audiences with hearing loss?

Retired classical host John Zech, who retired in November because of hearing loss, shares his experience.

According to the Mayo Clinic, hearing loss is common as you age, with one in three adults 65 to 75 having some degree of it. Hearing loss can have significant impacts on quality of life.

After Zech lost his hearing, he received a cochlear implant. But it mostly helps with daily communication.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven, shown in a portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, lost the ability to hear his music starting in his 20s.
Wikimedia Commons

"I do not have the ability to hear or appreciate music," he explained recently," and without that I can't be a classical radio host anymore."

Auditory (cochlear) implants help to restore some people's hearing. Electronically implanted into the inner ear, cochlear implants convert sounds into electrical signals and send them from the auditory nerves to the brain. By doing so, damaged parts of the ear are bypassed and people can hear again.

People who suffer from hearing loss and opt to receive auditory implants find that much of what they used to love about music is now gone. Implants fail to convey the pitch of voices and instruments, as well as the timbre, making it hard to follow melodies, understand lyrics or hear specific instruments. With that being said, each person with implants experiences music and sounds in different ways.

"Cochlear implants have been designed to help users communicate with speech," Zech said. "They do a pretty good job at that for most people, but they are only able to sample a small range of sound, and they render that sound in a very synthetic, distorted way. As sounds get more complicated (as music does), that distortion is amplified and often very unpleasant. I have a hard time explaining to people why I can 'hear' what they say, but I can't 'hear' music.

"I can't hear pitch anymore (except for just a few notes in my 'sweet spot'), just rhythm. And all of the sound I hear is distorted, music especially so. I hope that in time our cochlear implant technology can solve these problems."

For the benefit of his Facebook friends, Zech shared this demonstration from the Electro-Haptics Project of what music sounds like to some users of cochlear implants:

With time, people who receive auditory implants are able to adjust and find new ways to enjoy and love music. Some decide to read lyrics while they listen to improve their understanding, or, because implants are able to transmit rhythm more easily than pitch, some individuals find they enjoy rhythmic genres of music.