Wired for sound

“We had a big-band performance here last night,” Fay told me. “I liked the music, but I was wearing my hearing aid and I had to turn it off.”

Betsy chimed in. “I stuffed Kleenex in my ears.” She was determined to stay at the concert, and she didn’t want to offend the band members, who all volunteer their time to entertain seniors. “I rolled the tissue into little balls so you couldn’t see it sticking out of my ears.”

Oh, the aural challenges of growing older.

The type of hearing loss most of us experience as we age is called “presbycusis.” With this condition, lower-pitched sounds like vowels still come through pretty well. But high-pitched sounds like the consonants “s” or “f” or “p” don’t carry as much acoustical power and become increasingly difficult to hear. Discriminating between words gets harder. A person with presbycusis can often hear what is being said, but can’t understand it. Everyone seems to mumble. The high voices of children or the chirps of birds might not register at all.

Hearing aids can help with presbycusis. But because they are designed primarily to improve speech perception by amplifying the higher-pitched sounds, they often don’t pick up the lower frequencies of music.

Music ends up sounding distorted, with some notes too loud, other notes inaudible. Music just doesn’t sound the same as it used to, my elderly listeners tell me.

Here’s how an article in the Spring 2016 issue of Audiology Practices explains why hearing aids “fail to deliver”:

“All hearing aids … use microphones…. And all microphones have three annoying characteristics: they pick up what is loudest, they pick up what is closest and they have absolutely no idea which sound is important to the listener.”

When I play the piano for an older audience, I try to find the sweet spot, a middle-of-the-road volume that isn’t too loud for those wearing hearing aids. My music also needs to be loud enough to reach those who, despite not hearing well, don’t wear hearing aids. For them, most sounds are muffled or faint and they’d like me to crank up the music a bit. I get complaints from both camps, sometimes during the same performance.

It’s a delicate balance, and I do my best to make adjustments.

Can you hear me now?

Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in Aging, Audiences, Piano performance, Volunteering. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Wired for sound

  1. Jessa says:

    That’s interesting. I never considered how hearing loss affects other experiences beyond being in a crowd. I regret not wearing earplugs at the cafe for all those years. My sensitive hearing is definitely not as good.

  2. That’s one of those things we realize when it’s too late to do much about it 😦 I hope your hearing will be stable now, without the roar of coffee machines in your life!

  3. Dearest Cousin Paulette,

    Your work and your blogs are so amazing! I have had the pleasure of reading them for years? (at least it seems that way in a good way), and many a time have been brought to tears. So happy that one in our family has a musical “ear” and a way to spread so many joyous and humorous tales!
    As you know Mom finally got her hearing aides, So nice she is able to enjoy conversation and music, she is always harmonizing in more ways than one!

    In my work with multicultural patients and their families one of the first things I ask is ” do you speak English” and the second “can you hear me” (how backwards!) Communication is so important and Music such a powerful tool, I’m sure whatever the people hear when you are playing is beautiful to them even if they don’t appreciate it at the moment, they hum in their sleep

    Much love, Janet.

    • Thank you so much for writing, Janet. It makes my day to hear that you enjoy reading my blog, which by the way is 3-and-a-half years old! You’re right: music is a powerful communication tool. I feel lucky to be a volunteer pianist.

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