Continued music making against deaf ears

All too often a beginning loss of hearing gives reason to stop making music. An absolute shame, especially because active musicianship has such positive effects on the preservation of brain capacity and learning abilities, not to mention the social consequences of the loss of hearing.

One of the most important things a musician must learn, is listening and good listening goes beyond hearing. But what if you don’t hear well (any more)? When hearing becomes difficult, something remarkable happens in our brain: it develops new connections to compensate for this. How can you use this to your advantage?

A growing number of also younger people depend on hearing aids as a result of hearing loss. Lately I spoke with Mary Rudner, an English/ Swedish professor specialised in the interaction between the hearing centre and the working memory in the brain, in particular with the deaf and hard-of-hearing. In this blog I would like to share her insights and recommendations.

A new world of sound

Modern hearing aids are highly technological devices that transmit a lot of information to the brain. If the working memory of the wearer cannot handle this amount of information, the user experience will be reduced. The professional fitting the device should therefore consider what is fitting for the customer. Scientists are currently developing a method to fit the technology to the needs of the customer, taking into account his or her capacities.

If you’re a musician and in need of a (new) hearing aid, you will of course make sure to tell your hearing care professional so. But also share which instrument you play or what singing voice you have. And whether you play in an orchestra or ensemble, if you are a solo singer or a chorister and on which level you play. It makes a lot of difference in which frequency-area you are playing or singing and the distinction between solo or ensemble playing is equally important for determining the information flow to your brain.

The transition from being hard-of-hearing to better hearing with an aid seems a big one to me. Someone close to me was born without eardrums and had earsurgery at the age of seven. A piece of his own skin was made into eardrums and transplanted in both ears. Having to put in much effort in his early childhood to understand what he heard around him, he hears the middle frequencies extremely well since the transplant. It is very likely that the involved parts of the brain have developed new and extra connections.

To the musician a new hearing aid thus means a new musical experience, that you have to get used to. You might feel overwhelmed from everything you hear all of a sudden and it might seem to go in one ear and out the other. It depends how much information your working memory can store, how much effort this asks from you. When ears and brain function well together, listening is effortless. However, when sound quality is poor, it may be hard to identify the content of the sound signal. This means that the information in the signal has to be stored longer in limited capacity working memory before comprehension takes place. This may be perceived as effortful and lead to fatigue.

Be patient with yourself, for as said earlier: your brain will adapt! And what is even more beautiful: when we get older, active musicianship creates new connections that make it easier to compensate for the loss of hearing. If you continue being a musician you keep developing your listening skills, which helps you fill in the blanks of missing information from your longterm memory.

Now I would like to hear from you and learn from your experiences. Do you wear a hearing aid, or do you make music with someone who does? How does this affect your playing or singing? Where (if so) would you like to see improvement? If you have regular contact with hard-of-hearing or deaf people I invite you most cordially to share your knowledge and insights!