As a person with life-long hearing loss, I rely on hearing aids to help me navigate my muffled world. Because I have layers of hearing loss in one of my ears, I function as a “one-eared listener,” and sometimes, my hearing aids aren’t enough. The sounds I hear are often garbled due to my auditory processing disorder, which can make language hard to decipher.
Yet, I love music. This might seem counterintuitive — how can a person with hearing loss enjoy music?
With the help of brain imaging, scientists are increasingly learning the answer, as they probe the complex ways the brain processes music and how it allows people with different audio-processing abilities to enjoy their favorite songs.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
Hearing loss is the inability to hear and process sounds and speech. A person can be born with hearing loss, or it can degrade throughout their lifetime. As many as 28 million American adults have some form of hearing loss.
Having hearing loss is distinct from being Deaf. Hearing loss is typically described as having a loss of more than 35 dB in the ear that hears best. Deafness is the profound inability to distinguish speech or sounds.
Scientists have long understood how Deaf people can enjoy music through vibrations and also experience the emotions conveyed. In recent years, researchers have turned their attention to how people with hearing loss also enjoy music.
How Does the Brain Process Music?
In a 2020 study in Science, a team of cognitive neuroscientists sought to understand which parts of the brain are responsible for processing music. To start, they created 100 a cappella songs in both English and French by varying 10 sentences with 10 melodies, which they referred to as the stimuli.
The team then degraded elements of the stimuli so either the words or the melody were difficult to understand. Participants listened to the stimuli while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The team found the processing of speech occurred in the left auditory cortex. The processing of the melodic content happened in the right auditory cortex. These processes were separate, meaning only the left auditory cortex addressed lyrics and only the right auditory cortex classified the melody.
They concluded, “Humans have developed two means of auditory communication: speech and music.”
How Can People With Hearing Loss Enjoy Music?
Having two means of auditory communication means that people like me with hearing loss can compensate and still enjoy music, especially because we can rely on other aspects of our brain to help us process and interpret a song.
Take, for example, “Here and Heaven,” orchestrated by Yo-Yo Ma and sung by Aoife O’Donovan and Chris Thile. I can listen to the song with earbuds in and enjoy the melody, though I don’t quite understand the words or the meaning.
But I can find the lyrics online. Vision is processed in the occipital lobe, a different part of the brain than where auditory information is deciphered. I can then follow along with the lyrics as I re-listen to the song and familiarize myself. In this way, I’m visually learning the lyrics instead of listening to them.
I can add more visual information by watching a performance of the song on YouTube which shows the artists in the recording studio. I’ve seen videos of O’Donovan’s other performances, and I’ve familiarized myself with her facial expressions.
During intense moments in a song, for example, she has a tendency to pull back from the microphone. This is helpful because “Here and Heaven” feels intense to me in both the melody and the lyrics. Her performance in the recording helps my understanding.
With all these layers — the lyrics, the melody and the artistic expression — I am able to get a sense of the song. I can recall these musical memories every time I listen to it, and although I didn’t initially understand it, it has meaning to me now.
Can Music Improve Hearing Loss?
Scientists are finding that because various song components are processed in different parts of the brain, music can be used to help people with hearing loss improve their speech and language skills in a therapeutic setting.
A 2019 article in Hearing Research conducted a literature review of studies involving both children with and without hearing loss to determine if they benefited from musical interventions.
The authors identified that children with hearing loss can struggle with auditory attention and auditory working memory. Sounds that happen at the same time can be difficult for them to decipher and they can fail to determine where a sound comes from as well as which part of the sentence is meant to be stressed.
In the studies they examined, they found that elements of hearing like pitch perception can be improved through musical training that involves singing, music reading and instrument playing. Another study looked at how parents’ singing and musicality at home correlated with the child’s word stress perception (meaning their ability to know which part of a word to stress).
They found that children with musical experiences at home had better word-stress perception. Similarly, another study found that children who took music lessons had better auditory working memory and did well when asked to distinguish similar-sounding words such as toy and boy.
The authors concluded that music can be a helpful therapeutic intervention for children with hearing loss. They recommended that children and teens with hearing loss not be discouraged from taking singing lessons or learning an instrument. They encouraged parents to incorporate music in the home and also to seek out music-related toys. Music can not only help the child but also become something they enjoy throughout their lives.