Regaining Classical Music
I suspect one of the fears that grips every classical music lover lying awake in the early hours of the morning is “What if I lost my hearing? How could I cope without music?”
Last August it happened. Thanks to a badly managed session of microsuction (nothing to do with Rob and his colleagues, I didn’t even know him then) I was left with a significant hearing loss in my left ear and a lesser one in my right. They’d probably been looming for some time but the microsuction pushed them over the edge.
I’d always had a perception of hearing aids. They were a way of boosting sound so you could hear what people were saying. They were very small so the sound quality was almost certainly dreadful; probably made the average streaming service sound like decent sound quality. How could they possibly work for someone who cared about the timbre of each individual instrument?
At this point I learned what hearing loss is. I’d just assumed everything got quieter and needed to be made louder again. What I heard was very different. All the notes were there in the music, but some of them were quiet and others loud, some parts of the music were dull and others shrill. Violins tended to be so quiet that if an oboe started playing they were drowned. In some of the Ibragimova/Tiberghien Beethoven violin sonata recordings, I got the impression that Ibragimova hadn’t bothered to turn up.
All this was because I’d lost hearing at different frequencies. Up to about 2 kilohertz I was fine; cellos and basses sounded great, a bassoon was no problem. But then my hearing response started to slide and by 4 kilohertz it was very poor – violin sound is largely between 2 and 4 kilohertz. It kicked up again towards 8 kilohertz which meant the higher violin overtones were there without the main note, which sounds like a cat sliding down a windowpane with its claws out. (I know this; it’s a favourite pastime of our cat.) ENT specialists were not entirely helpful – so you’re getting deaf, you’re in your 60s, what do you expect? Live with it.
I found a sensible-looking website for hearing aids – the York Hearing Practice – and sent an e-mail asking if there was a hearing aid which worked for classical music and would actually make it sound like music and not a ghetto blaster tuned just off the station. Instead of a brief response, I promptly received an extensive reply from Rob Donnan asking various questions to narrow down the problem, and over the next week or two I had effectively an extensive consultation online. Then I went in to see him and we got to work. He started with Phonak aids, generally regarded as a world leader, and I immediately realized that hearing aids today are very different from my preconceived notions. It felt like they might actually provide music which sounded like music. But although the Phonak helped, the music still sounded wrong – like a drawing of a piece of music rather than the real thing. “Right,” he said, “let’s try Widex”. Widex aids have a much shorter latency delay than other aids; Rob had picked up on this when he had a sound engineer as a client who immediately asked which aids had the shortest delay and went for them without hesitation. That felt convincing, so I switched. Now things still weren’t right but felt as if they could be so it was worth working with them.
Basically the aids are set up by plotting the required boost of different audio frequencies against the audiogram of the hearing loss (Fitting) then nudging this until it sounds right (Fine Tuning). In my case it was even more complicated, as I listen to music on a Linn system which enables me to tweak different settings for different types of music. (For example, a lot of recent piano recordings are rather aggressive around the A two above middle C, which is 880 hertz, so I can drop the system response slightly around that point.) The process wasn’t done overnight – it took several months, and Rob has spent more time in my listening room than anyone but me should have to – and sometimes the process has made me scream with frustration, but gradually we’ve got there.
So what has come out of this?
First, I found that fitting the boost on the aid exactly to the audiogram of hearing loss wasn’t quite right. Don’t know why but I needed it slightly higher than it ought logically to be around 3 kilohertz and slightly lower above 6 kilohertz in the left ear – may be that my hearing is gently shifting. The point is that no one’s hearing remains constant, and can even change according to the time of day. Once the fitting had been pushed at those points, the fine tuning worked.
Second, what works for music doesn’t always work for other things. Voices sound hissy and harsh. Fortunately you can set up half a dozen different programmes on the aids; the fitting remains the same, but the fine tuning is different. A quick click on the aid switches between programmes.
Third, I had a problem with presence – in some recordings everything sounded natural but there seemed to be a veil between me and the sound. This was seriously frustrating as there seemed no logical tweak which would alter this. Then one day I cupped my hands behind my ears and the music shot into sharp focus. Which was the solution; the effect of cupping your hands behind your ears is to boost frequencies around a centre of 1.8 kilohertz. Put a slight boost on the aids there and the presence is right back in place.
Fourth, dealing with sound problems isn’t always as logical as you think. Upper violins in Dvorak’s String Serenade would sound harsh and forced; I’d drop the boost on the high kilohertz to get rid of the scrawny harshness, which it did, but at the cost of an overall dullness to the sound. But then I had an idea and suggested actually increasing the boost, and sure enough it produced an acoustic space for the sound to expand into, getting rid of the scrawniness without becoming dull. There’s a lot of informed trial and error in this, and I learned not to despair if initial settings didn’t produce good sound.
Fifth, bring a friend. I spent some time agonizing over why some recordings still didn’t work, only to be told “Wow, that’s a dreadful recording” when someone else heard it. It may not be your hearing which is causing the problem. I do suspect that natural hearing will adapt to poor sound more efficiently than hearing aids can, and I shall be rather more inclined to take recorded quality into consideration when buying music in the future. But that doesn’t mean there’s a problem with old recordings; Schnabel’s Beethoven sounds great.
Sixth, keep wearing the aids. I was out of reach of music for a few days and not talking to people much, so I decided to give the aids a rest. Bad idea. When I put them in again, music sounded dreadful and it took several hours for it to return to normal. My brain had thought oh good, got rid of that unusual new type of sound, can revert to hearing of a few months ago. And had to be retaught.
So, is everything back to normal? No, of course not; I’d like to have my hearing back. But in this insanely noisy world most people are going to have significant hearing loss by the time they’re sixty, and this does take you 90% of the way to hearing properly again. And sometimes even 110% – I’ve never, for example, heard Haitink’s recording of Shostakovich 5 sound so convincing; you can almost see the rosin fly out of the speakers at the start of the scherzo. I do suspect that where recordings don’t sound quite right they actually aren’t quite right, but my natural hearing used to compensate for it. Which means that my brain used to compensate for it, and there’s no reason that might not start happening again; it’s only been getting used to the aids for five months, and has had them on the current setting for only a few weeks. Patience is not one of my virtues, but sometimes it’s necessary.
I can only hope that if anyone else is feeling the bleak despair I was six months ago, this will help them realize that the game isn’t over yet. Wave this blog at Rob and tell him you’ll have what I’m having – and he always knows where to find me for ears-on experience.