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TED Talk on Cochlear Implants and Music

I have a lot of work to do this time of year, but wanted to post my first thoughts on this TED video.

First – no captions yet! gah! I can understand the main speaker, but the video clips aren’t clear enough to hear.

Second – I’m entirely happy with my two CIs. It’s been almost 2 years since the second one was activated and this is definitely my new normal and I wouldn’t go back to hearing aids if given a chance.

Third – I’m still playing saxophone in the sax sextet and in the band. We often play music in the house from Pandora, usually classical or jazz. Music I know well sounds the same as I remember it (because I’m remembering it), music that’s new to me starts out a bit muddled but becomes clearer with repeat listening (kind of like band, but there I’d expect it’s people learning their parts instead). I hear different things than I did with just hearing aids. I hear less of myself, and a little less of the people on either side of me. More of the trumpets, much more of the percussion, and Piccolos! There are definitely moments of beauty and emotion.

That said, you’ll see in this TED Talk video that cochlear implants are designed for speech and don’t do a very good job with music.

Embed code not working, so here’s a link to the video:

As happy as I am with my CIs, I really do agree with this video.

If you watched the video you’re probably wondering what I thought of the sound clips.

There are some sound clips in the video that portray music which sounds badly if you have normal hearing… I can’t really tell it sounds bad, in fact, the first clip of the MIDI file with pitches moved a semi-tone – sounds the same to me as the original. The trumpet clip vs violin – very similar, the violin had more vibrato, both sound a bit synthetic to me still – like the trumpet sound on electronic keyboards from the early 1990s. The clips of the Usher song, well, I can tell the difference between those… not sure either one sounds great, the second lacked percussion which seems more like a hearing aid issue than a CI issue.

I’m curious to hear what others think and encourage those with CIs to watch the video and then share here or in the comments on the TED page.


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6 replies on “TED Talk on Cochlear Implants and Music”

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    JC says:

    I found your site through the TED comments section. I have always been curious as to why some deaf people are able to pick out lyrics and identify instruments when listening to music, and why some, like me, find this nearly impossible. I was born profoundly deaf, raised with hearing aids, and received a CI at the age of 16 (a dozen years ago). Here’s what the music samples sounded like for me:

    * The MIDI file adjusted vs original — no difference at all. I rarely listen to classical music and have never played an instrument, so maybe I haven’t been “trained” to sense what’s good and what’s not.

    * Trumpet vs violin — the violin has a pulsing, like you said, that the trumpet lacks. However, I’m wondering if this pulsing, for me, isn’t just a cognitive bias: the video announces which instrument is which, and my brain fills in the blanks with what I expect to hear (however correct my expectations might be).

    I find it interesting that the trumpet and violin both sounded synthetic to you. The notion of music being synthetic or not synthetic is hard for me to identify with. On the other hand, I can tell when speech is very robotic.

    * The Usher song, with distinct pitches versus without — the difference is obvious to me, though I probably couldn’t tell you why if the speaker hadn’t explained it. It just sounds like everything — pitch, bass, even volume — is muffled in the second clip.

    On an emotional level, the video was a little disappointing. Like, exactly what am I missing out on? I always liked to think that music was in the ear of the beholder, yet the speaker seems to take it for granted that music isn’t worth listening to unless it’s perfect. But it’s for this reason that he believes there is so much room for improvement in CI technology. Which I suppose is a good thing.

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    michael says:

    35 years ago my violin teacher said I was tone deaf and had no sense of rhythm. I haven’t played since. I have enjoyed music since switch on just over 2 years ago. The first day after switch on the music sounded strange and only familiar pieces were pleasant but I rapidly learnt to listen to new music. I could differentiate the pieces played on the TED talk.
    l went to a concert last year by hearing organised sound (Melbourne) . most of the others there had cochlear processors. I have Medel . It sounded from the talks that music perception with cochlear was different as a result of the processing. The music specifically composed with cochlear processing in mind I thought sounded awful or perhaps I do not like modern experimental music. I did not see a reference to the brand of implants he was working with. I haven’t seen a full report on the feedback from the concert but it should be coming.

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    Interesting talk!

    I listened to it first with both my CI ear and my HA ear; then with just my CI ear. Charles Limbs voice sounds just as good either way – if anything, better with the CI alone.

    I’m definitely a musical naif. Although I like listening to music (mostly classical) I can’t claim to have much understanding of pitch, melody, etc.

    On the whole, the music clips sound better using both ears. The sound is a little bit richer, more timbre, colour, I guess.

    The MIDI clips sound different but I’m not sure I could really say what was different except that the second one seemed ‘off’ like a badly tuned piano (perhaps that’s what it’s trying to emulate)

    Both Usher clips sound pretty awful but the second one is barely recognizable – seemed like ‘white noise’ to me.

    The violin and the trumpet do sound somewhat similar but they are certainly recognizable, even with CI alone.

    Poor cat! I’m not surprised that he/she can’t be bothered with Beethoven and Tchaikovsky … whereas the trumpet is pretty clear and LOUD.

    I’ve had an Advanced Bionics for almost 3 years. At first, I found music sounded pretty bad – like lots of tiny hurdy-gurdies all going at once. But now it sounds a lot better. The more I listen to music, the more it improves. I suppose I should try and educate myself on this.

    I tend to disagree with Charles Limb’s premise. I think 90% of the benefit of a CI is simply being able to understand the human voice -spoken, sung, whispered, whatever. Anything else is gravy!

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    i think i can hear music better then what mr limbs is saying. I can tell the difference between the violin and the trumpet… they don’t sound anything alike to me. with hearing test i get 80% of the words right. I listen to music 2 or 3 hours a day.. using a ipod. I an hear many of the high sounds that I could never hear before … most music sound good to me …. i was born hard of hearing and used hearing aids since age 12, hard of hearing but not totality deaf

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    Thank you so much for posting your opinion!

    I’m currently studying to be a doctor of audiology, and we recently watched this video for our cochlear implants course. I’m currently conducting a study on pitch perception between musicians and non-musicians, and there is definitely something to be said about how processing is different in an ear that is trained for music versus one that is not.

    I imagine the fact that you lost your hearing after you had learned to code music with your ears allows you to continue to be a musician, even with BILATERAL CIs! That’s awesome and truly fascinating! Maybe it’s because I’m a total nerd when it comes to this stuff, but I am so happy to read an opinion about how listening with a CI is in the real world versus reading an audiologists’ regurgitation of someone’s opinion in a study.

    I have unilateral hearing loss, not enough to give cause for a hearing aid because I’ve been compensating with my other ear my whole life, but as a musician I’ve found it does affect some things; I actually hear pitches just a little bit differently (about half a note flat in my bad ear) when played alone, but my brain puts them together correctly when I listen with both ears. I’m so happy my brain knows which note is right – so far no one has told me I’m consistently sharp when I play my instruments!

    I hope you continue to thrive with your listening, and keep playing. I look forward to reading your other posts!


  6. Share

    Thank you so much for posting your opinion!

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