Does a loss of hearing prevent you from listening to or playing a musical instrument? It’s a question I hear all the time.
The answers can be quite surprising, but before we jump in too far, let’s examine the phenomenon of hearing loss first to understand what it means.
Hearing loss is a very common problem globally.
The Johns Hopkins Center for Hearing reports that one in eight adult Americans report some degree of hearing loss. According to the World Health Organization, by the year 2050 it is expected that 1 in 10 people will have disabling hearing loss.
Hearing loss can range from mild or severe (‘hard of hearing’) and can prevent people from hearing others in conversation or hearing loud sounds. Profound hearing loss implies little or no hearing (‘deaf’) and often means that sign language is the main form of communication.
It may come as a surprise to you that many musicians suffer and cope with mild hearing loss.
Even profound hearing loss does not prevent people from playing music and performing concerts. Obviously, with more severe hearing loss, the nature of hearing music and playing with others must be adapted – but it is still possible.
Key factors to consider in order to enjoy listening to or playing music:
Some musicians describe their reaction to hearing loss as following the stages of grief (denial, anger, grief, depression, acceptance). Others describe the process of telling other people as being similar to ‘coming out’.
You need to be honest about who you are in order to express what you need. This can help other musicians, teachers, and friends to help you. If you can’t hear something well, being honest about that is the first step to change and indeed to collaborating with other musicians. If you need something in order to hear or understand music better, say so.
Many people with hearing loss will get a hearing aid. This works to help the ear hear sounds by using compression technology – making low sounds louder and loud sounds quieter. Most hearing aids are optimized to help hear other people talking.
Anyone using a hearing aid will tell you that this improved volume is helpful – but that everything sounds different. It takes time to ‘learn’ what sounds are coming in. The sounds of birds singing, the chime of an alarm clock, and the sound of a kettle may sound so different that it takes some time to know them. That’s how different sound can be with a hearing aid.
That’s why it’s important to address hearing loss with a positive attitude. Hearing loss doesn’t define us, and honesty and positivity are massive factors in dealing with it.
Music tends to be louder than speech. For this reason, musicians will get a special type of hearing aid called a cochlear implant. This is a more advanced hearing aid that is implanted in a part of the ear called the cochlea.
Tuning the implant to the specific musician can be done by an audiologist – a professional who will help you to ‘tune’ the settings of the implant to your specific needs. Musicians suffering profound hearing loss (i.e., deafness) can perform concerts to audiences due to the wonder of modern technology.
Musicians with hearing loss emphasize the importance of the other senses, particularly sight and touch.
You can use a pulsing metronome (like this one) that you can strap to your leg or chest or wear as a wristwatch. This helps you feel the beat instead of having to listen for it. Incidentally, I use one of these myself (even with no hearing loss) as I prefer to feel the beat rather than listen for it as a practice.
You can ask your music teacher to face you, speak in a low pitched voice, and use gestures or visual aids. Adjust lighting so that lip reading and sign language can be effective. Always sit so that your hearing aid faces other musicians and ideally arrange yourselves in a semi-circle for this reason. The so-called ‘small things’ often make a big difference.
Instrument selection is a very important factor. Music professor Ruth Zinar recommends harp (because the strings are close to the ear) or guitar (because it is held close to the body allowing vibrations to be felt).
Note that other stringed instruments such as violin and cello should not be considered because the intonation difficulties may be too difficult for hearing loss students to master.
Hearing loss can be a traumatic experience for those who suffer it. Yet for those determined to listen and play music, many possibilities exist.
Guitar is an ideal instrument for those with hearing loss. If you wish to learn more about the health benefits of learning a musical instrument, I have put some resources here and even a half-price discount on my beginner guitar course.
Many musicians continue to play and enjoy playing with others even with profound hearing loss. Their positivity and resourcefulness should be an inspiration to us all.
Are you suffering from hearing loss? Has this stopped you from enjoying music or playing a musical instrument? Knowing what you now do, will hearing loss continue to be a hurdle on your path to learning a musical instrument? Please share your thoughts!