“I love this song,” my son calls out from the ocean where he is swimming off the back of the boat. The boat’s speakers are weak, but strong enough for my family to enjoy the music in the background. They all break into their best rock star moves, bopping their heads to the music and lip-syncing into their pretend microphones. I watch them and smile, but I don’t join in. Not yet.
“What song is it?” I ask. They are too busy jamming to reply at first, but eventually one of them will voice the lyrics out loud. Only then do I stand a chance of making the connection and getting in on the act.
We Hear with Our Brains
If I know the song, something clicks in my brain, and what was once an indecipherable field of noise snaps into focus. My brain connects the bit I am hearing to a song I must have heard under different conditions (or perhaps when my hearing was more intact) and boom — I can now “hear” the song clearly. I sing along too.
But if it’s a melody I don’t know, their crooning doesn’t help. The indistinguishable sounds remain a blur because there is nothing pre-recorded in my cerebrum to fill in the blanks. We truly do hear with our brains.
It reminds me of something Roxana Rotundo discusses in our hearing loss documentary ‘We Hear You.’ After getting her cochlear implant she needed to relearn people’s voices. It was much easier for her to do this with voices of people she knew well. “The brain acts as a hard drive,” she says, “storing voices and when the connection is made between what I am hearing now and what my brain has stored — the memory of the voice takes over.”
The same process is happening to me — but with songs rather than voices.
Tips for Enjoying Music with Hearing Loss
Listening to music can be challenging for people with hearing loss. Sometimes it doesn’t sound the way we want it to or think it should because our devices digitize the sound. But there are ways to make it work — especially if we leverage the concept of hearing with our brain.
I share my tips below. Please add yours in the comments.
1. Turn up the volume.
Some people like to remove their hearing devices, put on high quality headphones and turn up the volume as loud as it needs to be to hear. Be careful to do this only for short periods of time so your hearing is not damaged further.
2. Connect directly to the sound.
Use Bluetooth or t-coil settings to bring the music directly into your ears via your devices. T-coil connections works well for concerts and musical theater as well.
3. Use a music program or analog devices.
Try a music program on your hearing device or utilize analog technology when listening to music to minimize distortion.
4. Read the lyrics in advance to improve comprehension
This is very helpful when listening to new music. I used this trick on the latest Taylor Swift album and it helped a lot. Read more about that here.
5. Stick to music you already know.
While this is a bit limiting, it allows you to benefit from any pre-existing brain connections to the song and will help you partially fill in the blanks you are not actually hearing.
Readers, do you hear with your brain?
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24 thoughts on “Hearing Loss & Music: When My Brain Fills in the Blanks”
My brother died suddenly 2 weeks ago and at the funeral home there was a tv with a slide show of pictures of his life.He was a big baseball fan.A friend took me close to the tv and said “can you hear the music? Initially I said no but when she said it was take me out to the ballgame than I heard it. Our brains are amazing to remember hearing songs. The experience was comforting.
I am so sorry for your loss. It is amazing what our brains can do. Thank you for sharing your experience.
I have been doing this for years but this is the first time I have read anything about it. The music I listened to and loved before hearing loss I can still hear and enjoy just fine; even to the individual instruments. Anything new I have never heard is just a blur of sour notes and words. Our brains are truly amazing.
Absolutely! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Like the saying goes “I heard that before”. Our brains at work. Totally agree wit your article. I just need to catch a word or sentence & I’m in the groove. 🎤
Thank you Shari
It’s like magic! Thanks for sharing your experiences.
Decades ago, I was riding in the car with someone who turned on the radio to a classical music station. She expressed disbelief that I could not immediately recognize the orchestral piece being played, one which I had probably performed many times. After about thirty seconds when I figured it out, I was able to hear the remainder of the piece reasonably well. People including some audiologists forget that listening is not a purely perceptual activity, but a cognitive one, and that is true for both music and speech. Recently I went for testing to see how I was doing with my relatively new cochlear implant. I still have a very hard time understanding one syllable words out of context, but my sentence comprehension has improved enormously. I find the one syllable word test relatively meaningless with little relevance in the real world. Sentence comprehension, in which my brain can kick in, is really what I care about and my testing confirms what friends and family have already told me. I am hearing better than before the surgery.
Thank you for sharing these insights. I am so glad the CI is working well so far.
When reading your post, I thought yes, that is exactly what I experience. And I have a similar thing with languages. With different languages around me, it happens frequently that I have no clue what people are talking about – until I identify the language (or somebody tells me). Then my brain starts matching with what I could possibly expect and things start making sense to me.
Yes, that makes sense. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
When it comes to music, I have the hardest time when it’s played from a cell phone. I have a severe loss of high frequencies and cell phone loudspeakers do not have a lot of low frequencies. So the remaining spectrum is really narrow making it hard to enjoy. Better hearing people may fill in the lows based on mid tones and highs, but it is really tough to fill in both lows and highs… So what improves music listening a lot for me is using equipment able to provide the full undistorted spectrum of the original recording down to low frequencies. So, even though I may not be able to appreciate all details of the sound of high quality equipment, it may even make a bigger difference for me than it does for better hearing people.
Very interesting. Thanks for sharing what works for you.
I have severe profound hearing loss and as others, your story is one I completely relate to, Sheri – thanks for writing about it!
I’ve had a lot of fun lately playing concerts of singer-songwriters I love (spurred by the sad loss of Nanci Griffith) – as the concert plays and a song starts (luckily, the name of the song gets flashed across the screen in some of the videos or I replay it until I catch something – ) then I pause, open another tab, search for the lyrics and bring them up while simultaneously listening to the concert! It’s like hearing songs I have loved forever completely new now that I ‘hear’ the words! It’s a great way to spend a Friday night!
Sounds fun! Thanks for sharing the tricks that work for you.
You have encouraged me to try a little harder at church services… so far the music has sounded distorted and broken… perhaps I can improve this if I pay attention to lyrics and try a little harder… in past, I had a feel for where the music would go next… perhaps the cognitive aspect you mention… thanks…
Excellent! So glad you found it helpful and will give it a try.
Thanks for this post – It’s been sad to “lose” music. And it’s true, I ‘hear’ it once I remember the song! Headphones don’t help me for some reason. My favorite place is to listen to music is in the car with my hearing aids set to ‘Music.’ It has the least distortion and I can hear melodies/nuances that I thought I’d never hear again.
Thank you for sharing what works for you.
This–exactly! I have severe hearing loss and I’ve tried explaining this phenomenon to family and friends but they can never understand because they can hear normally. I don’t know a single person who is deaf or HoH, so it’s amazing to learn that other deaf folks experience this. As someone who aspired to be a musician back in my youth when I could hear normally, music was (and will always be) incredibly important to me. I have a vast library of music in my head that suddenly stops around 1990, when I lost a large chunk of my already-depleted hearing to strep throat. I’ve written about my relationship with music in my deaf/poetry blog. I miss music dearly, but those old songs, songs I’ve memorized from my hearing days, are still there, and what I can’t hear anymore, my brain fills in the gaps. So, despite having severe hearing loss, my love of music has never faded and I still dream of being on that stage, playing guitar in a band. Thank you for sharing this. Honestly, I thought I was the only one who was aware of this. 🙂
You are definitely not alone! Thanks for sharing your experiences with music.
Some of the correspondents here may like to check out the American Association of Musicians with Hearing Loss on Facebook or their website. AAMHL has lots of tips for musicians which may help anyone who loves music, and that would include most!! https://www.musicianswithhearingloss.org/wp/
Thank you for sharing the information.