Yesterday, I gave a paper about Aural Diversity during the ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Music Higher Education‘ one-day conference at City University, London. Over 120 people attended, and it covered a range of topics, mainly focusing on EDI issues in relation to ethnicity, gender and sexuality. The complete text of my paper is reproduced below. You can also view the slides on Slideshare.
I’ve given papers on Aural Diversity at quite a few Audiology conferences before, but this was the first time I’d spoken on the subject at a Music conference. One of the questions I was asked concerned how music curricula could be adapted to include Aural Diversity. In the past I’ve suggested to audiologists that they should include music in their courses, so this time I recommended that every music programme should include at least an introduction to the hearing mechanism, from ear to brain. To me, this is like learning how one’s instrument is constructed. But I can’t remember, as a student, ever being told about this, let alone the array of differences and disorders that can affect listening. My suggestion is that, once students become aware of their hearing, some more complex and subtle questions will emerge, which could then be dealt with responsively in a flexible way.
The conference was very good and there were some terrific papers, including a fascinating presentation by Ellan Alethia Lincoln-Hyde about Marjorie Lawrence. However, it did strike me how much ‘disability’ tends to be ignored or marginalised in EDI discussions. Judging by the (very complimentary) comments I received following my paper, many people had never even thought about hearing as an EDI issue at all. The conference set-up did not seem to take much account of hearing issues either. I had to spend time initialising the PA and microphone before I began (I was the third presenter), and I couldn’t mix with people because the noise in the breakout room was so loud. Social isolation is one price of hearing impairment (not to mention autism).
I regard the content of my paper as just basic. It’s astonishing to me that people (myself included until around 2009) are so unaware of hearing differences. In music, of all topics, one might expect that people would be extremely conscious of listening. Yet it seems that the majority pay it little or no attention. Perhaps this has something to do with musicians (who are four times more likely to develop hearing problems) wanting to keep any impairments secret, for fear of damaging their careers. If that is true, then I would just urge everyone to speak out about this. Reasonable adjustments can, and should, be made!
I was asked whether composition could be used to address aural diversity. I was very happy to be able to refer to the Aural Diversity concerts as proof positive. I also described my diplacusis piano, which seemed to spark some interest.
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.
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.
I was recently approached by a leading music venue, wanting to discuss how to improve concert experiences for “deaf and hearing impaired people”. They have been looking at the Aural Diversity project and evidently reckon there are things we could usefully discuss.
It’s really great that large venues are taking an interest in these issues. I think our ideas could scale up well into such a situation. The mantra of Aural Diversity is that “everybody hears differently”, so this should have a wider benefit for all, not just those who are deaf or hearing impaired. All this got me thinking. What would tempt me back into a concert hall after more than a decade of mostly avoiding them? How could we re-think the concert experience from an aurally diverse perspective?
This post has in mind a typical classical/contemporary venue capable of accommodating an orchestra, but my comments could equally well apply in pop/rock or other contexts. I’ll outline three main challenges – the people, the music, the environment – and then propose some solutions.
The People People are so diverse, ranging from D/deaf people whose hearing may be absent from birth or profoundly impaired in some way, to people with hyperacusis (an extreme sensitivity to sound), for whom everyday noises such as clattering cutlery can be extremely painful. There is a vast array of hearing types, including: tinnitus (ringing in the ears), unbalanced hearing impairment (different levels of loss in each ear), diplacusis (hearing two different pitches from a single note), presbycusis (age-related loss), notch losses (hearing deficits in selected frequency bands), acoustic shock (trauma to the head or hearing mechanism) and all sorts of other sensorineural losses, auditory processing disorders, conductive impairments, and mixtures of all the above. Given that every human being’s hearing begins to decline after adolescence, almost all the people involved in a concert could benefit from some kind of re-thinking of the experience. But how do we accommodate all these different hearing types at the same time?
The Music Most concerts contain a simple message for the listener: the only way to enjoy this experience is for your ‘ears’ (i.e. you) to measure up to the music. In some music, this is explicitly built in to the listening experience. It’s merciless. These days, there is a prevailing preference to give listeners a hard time by treating listening almost as a sporting feat. How many concerts are programmed with questions like loudness, intensity, granularity, variation, texture, frequency ranges, in mind? Not many, I suspect. Instead we have great long symphonies which give the ears almost no break. In between movements, the silence is oppressive, requiring nearly as much concentration as the music. And bear in mind that this applies to musicians as well as audiences! Musicians are 40% more likely than non-musicians to develop hearing disorders. It’s pretty obvious why that might be. But why should we have to adapt to music? Why can’t music adapt to us?
The Environment People assume that a concert is what happens when you enter a concert hall, but of course the truth is that the concert experience includes everything from the moment you arrive at the venue to the moment you leave. Most venue environments are terrible for hearing impaired people. No quiet spaces. Too much loud conversation. Cafe/bar dispensing noise. Horrendous lighting. Pinging gongs and tannoy announcements. Confusing etiquette. For those on the autism spectrum, the sensory overload can be completely debilitating. And once we enter the auditorium, a different set of rules apply. There’s no escape without incurring the wrath of those around you. Silence must be maintained. The pressure on the listener is intense. If this week’s Autism Hour is teaching us anything, it is that small but significant environmental changes can benefit not just neurodivergent people but also the wider population. So, how can we make the environment more suitable for aurally diverse people?
Alternative listening strategies There are so many more ways to listen than just the conventional synchronous acoustic experience in a shared space. Even within that situation there is room for variation. People should be able to move around both between and during pieces to improve the listening experience. Consider the possibilities of listening acoustically in other spaces outside the concert hall, in neighbouring rooms, even outside. How about streaming to hearing aids or wireless headphones, allowing audiences to wander about? Maybe pipe the music to listening stations outside? For D/deaf members of the audience, there should be BSL interpretation and live captioning throughout as standard. This can be as musical as anything done with sound. Consideration should be given to cochlear implants wearers and hearing aid users, and how these devices affect the listening experience. Every piece should come with video interpretation, viewable somehow (perhaps on mobile phones). Then, there should be an array of tactile and haptic interfaces to enable full-body listening. People could touch instruments as they are played, perhaps, or at least touch objects attached to instruments. Vibrating floors. Wearable sensors. And how about non-cochlear listening that relies on verbal descriptions or evocations of the music, rather than anything ‘heard’ in the conventional sense?
Diversity-friendly programming This is for the musicians just as much as the audience…Each piece on the programme should be analysed for its loudness, texture, intensity, instrumentation, duration, frequency ranges, etc. Those details should be presented in the programme so that audiences can decide how best to listen. It’s a bit like the spiciness recommendations in an Indian restaurant. D/deaf people may enjoy a piece that features a lot of sub-bass, whereas Ménière’s people will probably prefer something with lots of mid to high frequencies, while cochlear implant wearers might prefer music that has less complicated or ‘muddy’ textures. There should be plenty of time between pieces so that people can relocate accordingly. The programme should consider the needs of its performers and audiences much more carefully. Anything that involves listening for more than 40 minutes should be risk-assessed for its acoustic impact. Pieces that contain inbuilt aural rests should be programmed alongside other material. How often does a programmer consider that there might be too much piccolo, or too much brass, or whatever, in a given piece? This year’s “accessible Prom” programmed Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Why? What made those choices particularly suitable to that audience? Music that can adapt to the needs of its performers and audiences should be the goal.
Relaxed etiquette One thing we can learn from the D/deaf and autistic communities is that applause is very painful for many people. ‘Flapplause’, or ‘jazz hands’ or whatever we may call it, may attract howls of derision from certain quarters, but I can guarantee that it makes an enormous difference to aurally diverse listeners and is far preferable to clapping. More generally, there should be respect for the listening needs of others and less fierceness in insisting on the ‘right’ way to listen. Concerts need to relax and become more approachable for all sorts of people. This means also more tolerance of audience behaviour. Here we hit a real difficulty, because of course some audience behaviours (e.g. shouting out suddenly) may have a negative impact on others. In my experience, there are always common-sense solutions to such problems that may deploy some of the listening strategies described above.
Reconfigured environment The concert hall itself, with its rows of fixed seats, may not easily be reconfigured. But even so, more attention could be paid to sensory issues such as light, smell, touch etc. Flat-attenuation earplugs should be provided free, and there could be access to noise-cancelling headphones too. The noises made by chairs can be a particular problem, so these need to be silenced somehow. But the main environmental improvements would come outside the auditorium. A quiet room would be a great advantage, especially if it can also be used for silent listening to the performance. Attention should be paid to noises in cafes and bars, and in general the environment should not feel like a waiting room but rather a destination in its own right, given that not every concertgoer will enter the auditorium. Acoustic design of this space could even include a musical component that provides a unique listening experience aimed at aurally diverse audiences. This is not simply a matter of ‘coping with disability’ but rather of giving such audiences a musical experience that does not solely depend on their ability to sit still in a concert hall for 90 minutes.
New technologies Some of the solutions described above rely on new technologies that are still being developed. Mobile phones and similar smart portable technologies provide the platform for many of these, but some (e.g. vibrating floors) are bespoke, purpose-built pieces of equipment. One thing about ‘disabled’ people is that they are frequently, perforce, users and even developers of new technologies, often built around their own needs. These needs should be taken into account by the venue. When buying tickets, audiences can be asked whether they need to bring technologies and then consideration given as to how these would be plugged in to the infrastructure. In general, venues should connect with engineers and designers to support and innovate. This will prove mutually beneficial in the long run. For example, neural interfaces are increasingly entering the real world, but how many concerts include a capacity for their use? Less unusually, cochlear implants and hearing aids are a staple of hearing impairment, but their capacity as listening devices are rarely exploited by venues beyond the required ‘hearing loop’ compliance.
Conclusion If music is to be a shared experience, we need to think about what ‘sharing’ means. Aural Diversity is committed to the live concert. Standard recordings and reproductions simply will not do, because they reinforce the requirement for a pair of otologically ‘normal’ ears that are perfectly balanced. So, listening to a broadcast or recording of an Aural Diversity concert is n unsatisfactory substitute for the experience of attending the live event. This emphasis on liveness should be welcome to concert venues, but to be credible it has to be more than just an exercise in making things a bit more accessible to deaf and hearing impaired people. It really is a complete re-think of what a ‘concert’ might be and how this shared experience might be collectively understood by people whose perceptual apparatus varies so widely.