Thoughts before the Aural Diversity conference

Tomorrow is the first day of the Aural Diversity conference, which also includes the second Aural Diversity concert. I thought this would be a good moment to reflect on how far I have come and what lies ahead.

It was back in September 2017 that I attended the Hearing Aids for Music conference at University of Leeds. This was a very important event for me, because it showed very clearly that there should be no obstacle to my talking freely about my own condition and that, furthermore, there were positive benefits in so doing. Shortly afterwards I wrote my text ‘Ménière’s and me‘ which attracted a lot of attention and revealed for the first time that I had severe hearing loss, tinnitus, balance problems and all the other symptoms of Ménière’s. This was a pretty big step, because I had kept it a secret for over ten years, out of a mix of professional pride and fear.

At the same conference, I first made the acquaintance of Miguel Angel Aranda de Toro, Director of External Relations at GN Hearing, and through him a whole range of people at GN Resound, including audiologists, engineers and many people working in hearing care and hearing technologies. I was fitted with Linx Quattro hearing aids, which enabled me to consider making music once again.

My approach to adversity has always been to seek to understand through research and then to try to turn it – whatever ‘it’ might be – into a creative opportunity. So, the first thing to do was to research Ménière’s and its consequences for musicians. I undertook a qualitative study, interviewing several musicians with Ménière’s and several with other forms of hearing loss. The results of this will be presented in my keynote at the conference.

However, as is my way, I wanted to do something larger and more strategic too, that also offered opportunities for others. ‘Auraldiversity’ was a term coined by Professor John Levack Drever as a kind of auditory corollary of ‘neurodiversity’. He elaborated it most recently in this Organised Sound article. I’ve known John for many years and have always enjoyed his ideas about hearing and listening in relation to sound studies and acoustic ecology.

I thought that Aural Diversity sums up the differences in hearing between individuals, both in a musical context but also in terms of daily life. I decided to start a project that would explore these differences in a musical context. How can musicians with a range of hearing conditions play together? And how can audiences with a range of hearing conditions experience such music? What does this mean for music itself? I recorded interviews with BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio Leicester that explain these ideas.

GNResound very generously provided financial support for the project and this was further enhanced when I was awarded an Arts Council England grant. With that funding in place, we were able to stage the first ever Aural Diversity concert at a wonderful venue near Bath: the Old Barn, on Kelston Roundhill. This was a fabulous and memorable event, which is summarised in this video. We tried out many different ways of listening and performed a wide variety of music, with musicians ranging from profoundly deaf to hyperacusis and everything in between.

The potential of ‘Aural Diversity’ is so strong that a call for papers produced a remarkable international response. Perusal of the conference programme will reveal a fascinating and diverse collection of topics coming from a range of disciplines, including: medicine, hearing sciences, acoustics, engineering, creative computing, psychology, therapy, various arts and humanities fields, and of course music and sound studies. This diversity reflects the diversity inherent in the speakers themselves and the field as a whole.

The conference, which takes place at the University of Leicester, is accompanied by a second concert at the Attenborough Arts Centre, a venue which has a long and noble tradition of supporting disability and access to the arts. Once again, there will be many ways of listening and an aurally diverse collection of musicians. We have also worked with local groups such as the Hearing Impaired Unit at Beauchamp College. The concert will follow our set of conventions and includes BSL as well as video interpretations alongside streaming to remote headphones, haptic (touch) interfaces and vibrating floors.

I am hoping that the conference will provide both the foundations of a research network and a collection of future directions for the Aural Diversity project. I will be working to develop a concept map to define aims and objectives within each line of research. The delegates represent a self-defined grouping that will no doubt provide plenty of energy and momentum for our future endeavours.

Whilst Aural Diversity has come from my own experiences and interests, I know very well that it is not, and could never be, a project just about me. It relies on active participation and engagement by a cohort of musicians and researchers and therein lies the future, I think. Advocating for change in respect of aural diversity is important not just in music but for society as a whole. This is a topic that is barely discussed, but which affects all of us to some degree. I hope that in future we can achieve changes in attitude and indeed in policy in respect of all this, as well as re-evaluating how music works. Music should adapt to us as individuals and our hearing needs, and not require people to measure up to the standard of a pair of “normal” and perfectly balanced ears.

‘Thirty Minutes’ for diplacusis piano

The Aural Diversity conference is fast approaching. This includes the second Aural Diversity concert, which is being curated by Duncan Chapman. I have been asked to contribute a performance on the diplacusis piano. The idea is that my performance should be done as an installation in the intervals between the more formal sections (three of them) of the concert. I like this format very much. The audience may come and go as they please, and there is less pressure on me and my hearing to deliver a typical concert performance.

Which brings me to the composition itself. Previous blog entries have detailed just how hard it is for me to compose for this instrument. The ‘diplacusis piano’ is a digital instrument that reproduces what I actually hear when I play a normal piano. In the low to mid register, notes are unevenly ‘split’ between the actual pitch and a detuned pitch, which may be anything up to a minor third flat. In the low register, I cannot hear fundamentals, which means that the overtone structures that I do hear are similarly pitch-distorted. High register is not too bad, although the top two octaves sound increasingly harsh. And the whole thing is unbalanced by the fact that my right ear has much less hearing than my left, and everything is heard through a wall of ever-changing tinnitus (which I do not reproduce on the instrument).

Not surprisingly, therefore, composing for this instrument is hard because it sounds like endlessly self-reflecting mirrors. It is psychologically and acoustically distressing. My objective is to make something beautiful out of this, so I persist. But it is very hard to do.

My solution this time is to compose thirty one-minute pieces that may be played in any order. This way, I only need to listen for short periods, and I can vary the range of listening required, which makes it easier for me. I am forcing the music (and the instrument) to adjust to what I can do, rather than trying to push myself to meet the demands of the instrument. I hope that this kinder, gentler approach will reflect in music that is more approachable for another listener. At any rate, if someone does not like a particular piece, they only have to wait one minute for something different. That’s aural diversity!

As before, I am using a visual composition method, involving a scrolling spectrogram (see below). However, I have also included now a Lissajous vectorscope, which shows the behaviour of the various notes within the stereo field. You can get the idea from this video.

Spectrogram display

The music is very diverse: everything from Feldman-esque pianissimo minimalism to textural builds, pretty melodies, tintinnabulations and even the occasional silent piece. The visual display will be projected throughout and a poster will explain what is going on to the audience.

‘Hear More’ seminar, Lima, Peru

On Thursday I had the pleasure of addressing GN Hearing’s ‘Hear More’ seminar in Lima, Peru, via Skype. It turns out I am “very famous in Latin America”, no doubt thanks to the Spanish version of this video. At any rate, when I was revealed onscreen, an enormous cheer went up from around 100 Latin American audiologists, so I suppose that must mean something!

I was interviewed by Paula Duarte for about an hour. I told my story first of all, and then went on to report on my recently completed research project into the consequences of Ménière’s disease for musicians. This included some very interesting findings, such as the fact that all the Ménière’s musicians I interviewed had diplacusis (even if they had never heard that word before) and the consequences of that and other symptoms for musical perception. The resulting paper should be published soon and I will include a link to it here when that happens.

I passed on to the audience some of the comments about hearing care and hearing technologies from the musicians I interviewed. I always have to tread carefully when discussing this, because musicians generally are rather frustrated by audiology and hearing aids, whereas audiologists tell me repeatedly that musicians can be very challenging clients! The way I describe it, there is a difference in expectations between musicians and audiologists. Musicians are generally disillusioned with the shortcomings of hearing aids, frustrated by the lack of consideration given to sound quality (rather than just amplification), disappointed that hearing tests restrict themselves to frequencies in the middle and upper range, and downhearted by an apparent lack of empathy. Audiologists, on the other hand, have to deal with an array of new and unfamiliar terminologies (the languages of music and hearing science are really quite different) and the fact that they have certain professional priorities which are not necessarily those of the musician/client. Their training does not fully equip them to deal with the kind of questions musicians frequently raise.

My solution to this, as always with interdisciplinary exchanges, is to try to find common areas and develop a shared language and understanding. This is not easy: audiological training does not generally study music (any more than ophthalmologists study painting) and musical training can be surprisingly indifferent to both sound and hearing. But there is evidently a will amongst audiologists to move towards better and more supportive care for musicians, which is great. With that in mind I shared a few musical aspirations:

Let’s give users more control of their hearing aids (e.g. full EQ, sound mixing, filtering capabilities);
Why can’t hearing aids reduce sound as well as amplifying it?
Improvements to localisation perception would be great, especially for those with uneven hearing loss;
Could a hearing aid correct diplacusis?
Please can we have benchmark consistency in everything that is heard!

Hearing aids are designed mainly for speech, as everybody knows, but increasing their potential for music is becoming more important all the time. I also suggested some more creative uses…how about a hearing aid that could identify birds when they sing in nearby trees? Or how about some kind of hearing aid-based Pokémon Go? Then it would be really cool to wear a hearing aid! AI seems to offer a way forwards here.

After all this, I talked about the Aural Diversity project, which everybody found fascinating and very valuable, to judge by the comments I have received subsequently.

Questions form the floor focused on some of the technical details. They were very interested in the extent to which the hearing aids have really helped me to hear music again. This is something I followed up with some individuals subsequently in chat. The essence of my response is that I am still finding out. Listening to music without hearing aids is now more or less impossible for me. It is unpleasant and the pitch distortions turn it into a kind of acoustic mush. The hearing aids improve on this: they ‘flatten out’ the diplacusis – not by removing it, but by lessening it and making it more predictable. Also, the increased flow of information means that my brain can fill in the gaps and make better sense of the music. So, for example, pitches below the octave below middle C become more audible thanks to the increased upper headroom. This seems crazy: how can more high frequencies improve perception of missing low frequencies? I think it is because the available overtones provide my brain with enough information to be able to figure out what the bass note should be. This combines with the residual hearing in my good ear to create a pretty convincing bass note.

However, I would not want to overstate the case here. Hearing aids create an artificial listening experience. I am aware that I am not hearing what is really there. And the sound is still pretty thin compared to natural acoustics. But I am so grateful for any meaningful sound input I can get. I become emotionally overwhelmed quite quickly, just listening through the music programme on my hearing aids, so thank you GN! Whereas I had given up listening to music altogether, I do now listen more, even though I tend to stick to fairly simple music that does not become too muddy. Also I cannot listen for long periods without making the tinnitus worse, so I have to be careful.

Composing for Aural Diversity

The first Aural Diversity concert is now approaching fast. I have composed three pieces for this concert.

“Where two rivers meet, the water is never calm” is written for my diplacusis piano and reflects my hearing without aids.

“St. George’s Island Revisited” and “Kelston Birdsong”, on the other hand, show what I can do when I wear my GNResound Linx Quattro hearing aids.

This video explains the Aural Diversity concept, but I wanted to reflect on the composition of the three pieces and the challenges they involved in this blog post.

The main challenge for me as a composer with severe hearing impairment is whether to compose ‘normal’ music whose sound I can imagine (if not hear), or to compose music that reflects my hearing as it actually is.

“Where two rivers meet, the water is never calm” adopts the latter path and was extremely difficult to compose. First I had to build an instrument that accurately reproduces my hearing. This includes severe hearing loss, fluctuating tinnitus, and diplacusis (wherein you hear two different pitches when a single note is played). Composing for such an instrument is laborious and painful, because I hear my own diplacusis with diplacusis! It’s like endlessly receding mirrors. I developed a visual method using a scrolling spectrogram to enable me to match frequencies from the overtone structures of each sound. What I found was that very minimal music works best, because otherwise the results get muddy very quickly and sound simply like an out-of-tune piano. I have tried to make something beautiful out of what is quite a distressing flow of two different information streams, hence the title.

“Kelston Birdsong” is written with the hearing aids, which reduce the diplacusis and increase the audibility of the sounds as far as the Ménière’s will allow (lower pitches are still lost). I composed the piece to theatricalise the listening of the great musicians who are taking part in the concert: Simon Allen (percussion), John Drever (digital sound), Ruth Mallalieu (clarinet), Matthew Spring (viol), Anya Ustaszewski (flute). The way the piece works is that a birdsong is played from a pool of 35 songs. Each birdsong is assigned to one of the musicians and sits within their comfortable hearing range. On hearing the song, they play a ‘call’ from a sheet. When the rest of the band hear that musician’s call, they play a response from a menu that is geared to each individual’s hearing range. The process then repeats until all 35 birds have been heard.

The idea is that the audience can go for a walk outside during the piece, wearing radio controlled heaphones which stream the music to them. They can then hear the sounds the kind of birds encountered on Kelston Roundhill.

Finally, “St. George’s Island Revisited” features Matthew Spring on viol. It is a simple but lovely tune for the entire ensemble to play. Matthew and I go back a long way together and I have always admired his great musicality and his cheerful disregard of his own hearing limitations, which he has had for much longer than I.

Anyway, I do hope we have a good audience for the concerts. There will be two performances, one at 2.30 and one at 6 pm. Do come along!

Creating a visual language for the diplacusis piano

In previous posts I have discussed the construction of a “diplacusis piano”, a digital instrument that reproduces accurately what I actually hear. Diplacusis is a phenomenon in which you hear two different pitches, one in each ear. In my case, the left ear is mostly in tune, whereas the right ear is mostly out of tune, by fairly random amounts.

The problem with composing for the resulting instrument is twofold: firstly, because of my hearing loss I cannot hear the (quiet) sounds it produces very well; secondly, what I do hear I hear with diplacusis, so diplacusis on diplacusis!

How then to compose for this instrument, given that I have only a poor idea of what a person with normal hearing would hear? My solution is to develop a visual language based on the spectrograms of each note. I have been steadily learning about the character of each spectrogram as I go.

Here are some stills of most of the keyboard. The image quality has been reduced for speed of upload, but they are clear enough for you to be able to see how they vary. It’s really intriguing. My idea now is to start to connect together the various overtones to begin to create some kind of “harmony”. You’ll see that I have put gridlines on each image to help with this.

These are static images (generated with Pierre Couprie’s wonderful EAnalysis software). In the live performance, I will work with spectrograms that continuously evolve over time. This, I hope, will act both as a kind of score but also, for listeners who have even less hearing than myself, a visual version of the music that can be enjoyed without necessarily hearing everything.

So, here is a selection of the keyboard, just to give you an idea:

And here are just two notes for comparison at higher quality. You can see how different they are in terms of both structure and behaviour over time. This gives me a starting point for composition.

C4 (middle C)
C5

Building the “Diplacusis Piano”, Part 3/3: Making Music!

In the last two posts (here and here) I have described the process of building a digital “piano” that reproduces my diplacusis. Having constructed the instrument with the help of Professor Craig Vear, I have begun to muse on the creative possibilities that this has revealed.

It is immediately clear that this is not really a piano at all, despite having piano sounds as its raw material. If I play a common chord, or attempt to play some classical piano music, all one hears is an out-of-tune piano. It’s a bit like a honky-tonk but worse – some kind of abandoned instrument. Interestingly, the brain filters out the “rubbish” from the signal and quickly the out-of-tuneness recedes into a normal piano.

So, to avoid sounding like I’m just trying to write piano music for a bad instrument, I must find a new way of thinking about composing for this diplacusis piano. This echoes my experience with diplacusis and hearing loss generally. I need to find new ways of listening if I am to appreciate and enjoy music now. My aim is to create something beautiful, despite the supposed limitations imposed by my condition.

Craig was keen to describe how each note, each adjusted sample, made a different sonic journey lasting 10 seconds. What he could hear was a fascinating mixture of rhythmical beats, emerging harmonics, clusters of partials, percussive noise, all evolving over time. Every single note has its own character, which he was able to describe to me in some detail, waving his arms expressively as he did so. So this is not a piano, but rather an 88-note composition with a total duration of just under 15 minutes!

The problem is, of course, that I cannot hear them! To me, each sample lasts about 3 seconds, and I do not trust what I hear even within that time frame. So, how can I possibly write music for this instrument if I cannot hear it properly?

Once again, new digital technologies come to my aid. Firstly, there are my wonderful GNResound Linx Quattro hearing aids. During the building of the instrument, I removed the hearing aids, so as to capture as accurately as possible my diplacusis. Now, by reinserting them, I can gain a much better impression of the sounds of the instrument. I can hear them for longer and understand the complex shifting interactions between the higher partials. However, the hearing aids alone are insufficient, especially in the lower registers. Even with my unvented mould, which prevents sound escaping from my right ear, the low end response is not enough.

As we worked on the instrument, we used a spectrogram to understand what was happening in each sample. This was fascinating, because it conveyed rich information about each note’s “story”, showing the strange rhythmic pulsations that arise from beats, the emergence and withdrawal of various overtones, the intensity of different registers, and so on.

So, my way of composing is becoming clear: I must familiarise myself with the story that each of my 88 mini compositions tells. Then I can string these together in ways which create a convincing musical narrative. There may be many such narratives – that remains to be seen – but each will have its own unique and engaging storyline that listeners can perceive.

To help them in this, I plan to add a video component to the performance, showing the spectrograms as they change, any musical descriptions (in text) or notations that are relevant, and perhaps a more imaginative interpretative layer. Multiple windows on a single screen, conveying the story of the piece.

This will help people in the Aural Diversity concert (where this will be premiered) whose hearing diverges from my own. They will be able to experience the composition in several ways at once. My performance will not resemble a traditional piano recital much. The keys on the keyboard are merely triggers for sonic navigations to begin. But it will hopefully prove engaging as I convey the emotional nature of the discoveries described in these posts and combine that with an informative and stimulating visual display.

Building the “Diplacusis Piano”, Part 2/3: In the studio

In the previous post I described the background to this project to construct a digital piano that renders my diplacusis audible to others. This post describes my studio session with Craig Vear, during which we assembled the entire instrument.

We worked in the Courtyard Studio at De Montfort University, which was the very first space I constructed when I started up the Music Technology programme back in 1997. Craig Vear is a former student of mine who is now a Professor. I’ve known him from the days of the BA Performing Arts (Music) degree at Leicester Polytechnic, where I started my academic career in 1986. It seems that past investments are repaying me handsomely! Here’s Craig in the studio, attempting to describe to me how one of the notes unfolds:

First we created middle C (C4) using Bosendorfer samples. This was something I had already done in my previous attempt, but the difference this time is that Craig’s ears were able to hear the interesting journey the difference tones take as the edited and filtered sample unfolds. This is the first clue about the creative possibilities that will subsequently emerge.

We matched the extent of my hearing loss in the right channel, in particular, and panned the stereo channels hard left and hard right. We introduced some filters to take out the lower frequencies as appropriate (it gets much more extreme in the lower registers) and some high ones too, using my audiogram as a guide. Finally, we detuned the samples. In most cases this was an adjustment only to the right channel, but sometimes it also entailed adjusting the left. Detuning meant converting frequency information in Hertz into cents (i.e. hundredths of a semitone). It’s a bit hard to make out in this photo, but the two high screens show an online hertz/cents converter on the left and my original diplacusis chart on the right. The desktop screens show the samples on the left and the filters and tuning information on the right.

I had already decided that none of the sounds will rise above piano (i.e. soft). This is because my hyperacusis also means that I find any loud sounds distressing nowadays. Having tried to play a conventional piano recently, I realised that the mechanical sound of hammers hitting strings is too painful for me, regardless of the diplacusis. So this will be a soft and gentle instrument.

So, to give an idea what this sounds like, here is the original sample plus its “diplacusis” version:

Untreated C4
Diplacusis-adjusted C4

We repeated this process across the entire 88-note range of the piano, following the findings described in the previous post. Here are some more C-diplacusis notes, to give an idea of the sheer range and variety of sounds that resulted:

C1
C2
C3
C5
C6 (N.B. – this is unaffected by diplacusis)
C7
C8

The final step in the building process is to create an instrument in Logic (my sequencer of choice) using the ESX24 sampler. This maps the various samples across the whole instrument. In the range that I had specified using my singing method, we made individual samples for each note. In the other ranges we transposed samples up or down across a minor 3rd.

Building the “Diplacusis Piano”, Part 1/3: Background

Introduction

In a previous post I described my struggles with diplacusis and my intention to build a “piano” that could reproduce the sounds that I actually hear for the benefit (?) of others. This series of posts will document the progress I have made so far and the exciting compositional possibilities that are opening up as a result.

Diplacusis is a disturbing phenomenon in which the two ears hear a given musical note at two different pitches. It is yet one more from the smorgasbord of symptoms associated with Ménière’s Disease (see this post for a detailed account of my Ménière’s experiences), alongside vertigo, hearing loss, tinnitus and aural fullness.

I decided to try to build a musical instrument that would convey to others what this sounds like. I wanted this to offer me a creative opportunity to make some beautiful music. What it is in fact providing is not just that, but a whole new direction for my composition.

This post is a detailed account of the first steps in building this instrument. It is necessarily a digital instrument: there is no way this could be done using traditional technologies. I have been greatly helped by my GNResound Linx Quattro hearing aids and by my friend, the composer and Professor Craig Vear, who provided not just technical fluency in the studio and an otologically “normal” pair of ears, but also the ability to describe each sound to me as it emerged from this new instrument.

Starting Points

I decided to start with a piano simply because that is the instrument I used to play back in the days when I regularly made music. Piano sounds also have a pleasing decay which I instinctively felt would work well with this phenomenon. Nobody wants to listen to sustained diplacusis!

In my previous scientific study of my own diplacusis, I mapped the differences in pitch across my own singing range by laboriously stopping the good ear and singing the pitch I heard in Hertz, then comparing it with the correct pitch. This gave me a verified chart from F#2 (~92Hz) to C4 (~261Hz). To understand what comes next, you need to see my audiogram:

Andrew Hugill’s audiogram (July 2017)

This one is a little bit out of date, but my hearing has not changed much since then. Observe that (as is usual in audiology) the right and left ears are reversed in the image. You will also notice that audiology takes no interest in frequencies below 125Hz or above 8kHz. This is because audiology is mainly interested in speech and, frustratingly, takes little account of music.

Anyway, you will see quite clearly that my right ear (in red) is way below my left ear. This is what severe hearing loss looks like. My left ear has normal hearing (above 10dB) in the region between 1500 Hz and 4000 Hz. This is my salvation in speech situations. But there is quite a lot of hearing loss around that. Nevertheless, my pitch perception in that ear is tolerable.

One other thing to notice is that the lower frequencies show a marked decline in both ears. This is typical of Ménière’s Disease, where the bass disappears first. By contrast, in age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) the high frequencies deteriorate first, which is why so many hearing aids concentrate on the high end.

First efforts

Now you can see why the next step in preparing for the instrument was so daunting and has taken me many months of struggle to figure out. I could no longer rely on either my audiogram or my singing voice to help me understand my own pitch perception, because the rest of the piano keyboard is simply out of range. To make matters worse, every time I tried it was like working in a hall of endlessly reflecting mirrors. I would listen to my diplacusis with my diplacusis… it was very uncomfortable and very tiring.

So with considerable effort, I worked on trying to understand my own hearing by feeling my way with trial and error. Gradually a number of key features emerged:

  1. There is an octave between F#5 (~698Hz) and F#6 (~1397Hz) where there is no diplacusis at all. In other words, I hear a piano just like a normal piano, as anyone else would, albeit with greatly reduced hearing in one ear.
  2. In the range above that, the diplacusis gradually reappears, getting worse the higher up you go. However, since the piano sounds pretty metallic in that register anyway the effect is not as disturbing as you might expect.
  3. The range from C4 (~261Hz) down to F2 (~87Hz) is affected by random amounts of diplacusis as per the chart from the earlier study.
  4. Below E2 (~82Hz) this random diplacusis effect continues, but now a new phenomenon enters, presumably resulting from the general loss in low frequency hearing. The fundamental frequencies of each note and then the first and second partials, gradually disappear, leaving a thudding sound and a collection of higher overtone frequencies. This complex spectrum is then subject to precisely the same diplacusis that affects the higher register, resulting in a perceptible shift in spectrum but no discernible change in pitch.
  5. And this is, I think, a novel finding: every diplacusis induced detuning is flat! This seems to contradict the received wisdom that diplacusis notes are sharp. I need to do more research into this.

Given the difficulties of translating the above into any kind of instrument, I eventually had to admit defeat and seek help. This is where Craig Vear enters the picture and the account of our building session yesterday will be the subject of my next post.

Aural Diversity

deerears

Most music is made and reproduced on the assumption that all listeners hear in the same way. Psychologists generally write about aural perception as though it is a single standardised thing. Acousticians normally design the sonic environment using uniform measures. Musicologists typically discuss music at it is meant to be heard, not as it actually is heard.

The reality, of course, is that almost all people hear differently from one another. BS ISO 226:2003 is the standard for otological normality and is taken to be the hearing of an 18-25 year old. After this age, presbycusis (age-related hearing loss) usually sets in, at rates that vary from person to person. On top of this comes a range of other potential losses, from noise-induced hearing loss to sensorineural disorders, from genetic problems to losses caused by trauma or medication. In other words, every single person is likely to have at least some hearing loss after the age of 25 and very many people have significant hearing difficulties. I am  willing to bet that a substantial number of 18-25 year olds also have hearing problems!

Given this state of affairs, it is surprising that more is not spoken about aural diversity. In an era when diversity is such a hot topic in so many aspects of society and life in general, why is aural diversity so neglected? My friend Professor John Levack Drever has written about it quite a lot, but otherwise there seems to be a dearth of discussion of the subject. There is plenty on disability, of course, which is great, but for those who would not classify as disabled but nevertheless are aurally diverse: not so much. This affects musicians as much as anyone else. I am aware of many musicians and composers (myself included) who struggle with their hearing, but who nevertheless continue to make music that sounds as it should to “normal” ears. Perhaps it is time that we started to reflect more honestly on our own limitations and present these in our music?

I certainly find myself at a compositional crossroads. If I continue to create normal music, I will have to revert to writing dots on paper because I can no longer hear digital sound accurately enough. At least my aural imagination is intact. If, on the other hand, I want my music to reflect my own experiences, then I have to start engaging with my aural limitations by introducing into my sound world those elements that I actually hear (including such disturbing things as diplacusis and tinnitus). How to do this yet still create beautiful music is a real challenge.

In the meantime, I can envisage a series of musical events that celebrate aural diversity. Surely there are composers and musicians out there (including those with normal hearing!) who would wish to make music that reflects on or addresses itself to a range of hearing types? Perhaps this opens up a new possibility of bespoke music that is more than just the result of users fiddling with EQ and is intrinsically designed for the individual listener’s hearing abilities.

Hearing (my) hearing: pitch perception

Here is an attempt to model the way musical pitches sound to me nowadays. I hear two notes in place of the usual one. This phenomenon is called diplacusis. It is one of the many consequences of the hearing loss resulting from my Ménière’s Disease.

In future posts I will explore how I perceive timbre, localisation, idiom, etc. The changes are quite profound.

Digital technology is enabling us to do something that was previously impossible: to present to people with ‘normal’ hearing how someone like myself with hearing loss actually hears. It reminds me of that Marcel Duchamp note in the Box of 1914: “One can look at seeing, but one cannot hear hearing”. We are now in a position where this is no longer true!

Marcel Duchamp: Box of 1914.

 The following experiment is quite raw, but nevertheless gives a pretty good idea of how the diplacusis works, at least within my singing range. Bear in mind that the hearing loss is severe in my right ear and mild in my left. The experiment ignores tinnitus, which also intrudes.

First I played a piano note at a given frequency (rounded to a whole number). I checked with a fine pitch meter that the tuning was correct before proceeding.

I then blocked my right ear and sang the note I heard, checking against the pitch meter. The left ear (my ‘good’ ear) gives generally very accurate pitch, with a few slight deviations towards the lower and upper ends of my singing range.

I then blocked my left ear and performed the same exercise using my right. The following chart shows the pitches, and the difference. Pitch was not the only difference: for example, the perceived amplitude was considerably softer  from 138Hz downwards and fell away steadily. This is a typical hearing loss pattern in Ménière’s.

NoteFrequency in Hz (rounded)Left Ear difference (Hz)Left Ear Perception (Hz)Right Ear Perception (Hz)Right Ear difference (Hz)
 F#2/Gb2 92-19186-6
G298-29695-3
 G#2/Ab2 103-1102100-2
A2110110104-6
 A#2/Bb2 116-2114110-4
B2123123117-7
C3131131125-5
 C#3/Db3 138138132-6
D3147147140-7
 D#3/Eb3 156156151-4
E3165165151-11
F3174174168-6
 F#3/Gb3 185185180-5
G3196196192-4
 G#3/Ab3 207207204-3
A3220220212-8
 A#3/Bb3 233233229-2
B3247-1245240-7
C4261-2259251-10

What we can see quite clearly from this is that my diplacusis is active at all frequencies, but also variable. For some pitches, it is more than a semitone! For others, rather less. I hear these two pitches combined, with the out-of-tune one being softer than the in-tune.

What does this sound like? Here is my attempt to emulate this using appropriately detuned piano sounds. The ‘in tune’ note is louder than the ‘out of tune’ note, to reflect the hearing loss. The combination is pretty accurate, though, and by listening to this with by bad ear blocked I can get a better idea of what a normally hearing person would hear. There is a scale first, then the Bach Prelude No. 1:

 I then tried the right ear only wearing my new GNResound hearing aid. What is fascinating is that this does not remove the diplacusis, but it does reduce it and. strangely, makes it into a smooth deviation, getting larger as the pitch descends.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of all this, but it is interesting!