Music to our (bionic) ears

Karli Dettman
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Karli Dettman on 09/02/2011
A close-up of someone playing an electric guitar on stage with a drummer in the background
close up of someone playing electric guitar + drummer

Music for people who are Deaf

Around 1000 Victorians have a cochlear implant. Each person' s experience with a cochlear implant is different. But there is one thing that most people with an implant share. Most people find it difficult to learn to appreciate music.

There are many people who have cochlear implants who can hear speech but find music harsh. One implant recipient described music as like the sound of cellophane being screwed up.

Six Australian music composers have been commissioned by Melbourne’s Bionic Ear Institute to produce music for people who are Deaf. Their work will be performed at a special concert on Sunday February 13. The concert is called Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear.

Creating music

Creating music for people with a cochlear implant is a challenge. The cochlear implant only has 22 electrodes attached to a small device drilled into the skull. In comparison, hearing people have about 3500 hair cells to help them to appreciate music.

The Bionic Ear Institute did research into the sounds that Deaf people miss. They found that music was fourth on the list. The things that people missed most were the sounds of their children, whispers and birdsong.

But when I talk to my Deaf friends, this subject rarely comes up. What we would like is access to the hearing world. So I spoke to two Deaf people with cochlear implants about their thoughts on the forthcoming concert. 

Fascinated to learn

Mary is a middle aged Deaf person. She got her cochlear implant a few years ago.

Mary grew up profoundly deaf and never heard music. With her cochlear implant she was fascinated to learn the different sounds birds made. But she thinks most birds make horrible sounds like screaming.

Mary says she can live without music. But she has been learning to appreciate it. She particularly enjoys hip hop music. She finds classical music difficult because she cannot follow which instruments are playing. She never learnt how to identify what each instrument sounds like.

Helps to calm

Mary now likes putting music on in her car when travelling long distances.  She says it helps to calm her.  

But Mary says she is not interested in attending the concert on Sunday. What is the point? she asks. I will not be able to identify the sounds. I’ll probably need a hearing person to sit next to me to explain different musical sounds.

Georgina also got a cochlear implant recently. She is much more interested in attending the concert than Mary. She says she is very curious about it.

Recognise more sounds

Georgina was born with a hearing impairment and lost all of her hearing at a young age. The cochlear implant has helped her to recognise more sounds. She describes the implant as like a more powerful hearing aid

Georgina recalled as a young girl she could follow ABBA songs with her hearing friends guiding her. Today, she feels she is not really absorbed into the music world but enjoys the background noise. She likes to listen to different songs. But she has not yet found music to help her relax. She prefers reading books to unwind. 

Flashing lights

The Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear concert will be held at the Fairfax Theatre in the Victorian Arts Centre on February 13. Tickets start from $10.

To help people with a cochlear implant enjoy the concert, flashing lights will also be used so the audience can also “see” the music. I like looking at rainbow colours. They are beautiful and musical to my eyes. I can imagine how lights at the concert might help those who have strong auditory imaginations. 

Let us know your thoughts on the concert in the comments section below.

Readers comments (4)

I am profound in both ears altho the right ear less so. I was moderate and severe before a skydive. I wear bte's but these dont mean that I can really appreciate music. I either need to know the song lyrics beforehand or have someone to fol...low it by my watching them sing it or signing cos the performers are too far away to lipread. This all makes it very hard. With my bte's its hard cos a concert is not good quality sound like a CD that is clear and can be played loud. A concert is far away and isnt clear sound and its quieter. So for me there isnt much point in going to a concert as I wont hear the fine nuances of the music if its classical or instrumental music but on a CD I can appreciate these much more but still not fully - I will not hear things like chimes and I cannot pick out the different instruments being for me the whole deal of concerts is fairly much a non-affair for me plus I find the idea of music at 22 sounds vs 3500 incredibly basic - even at my profound level I hear more than that with bte's. Without the bte's I am reduced to the basic beat so I am glad that I have bte's and can enjoy music to the extent I do.

I can only say that comparing musical experiences b/w a CI wearing and a BTE (Behind the Ear) deaf person is like comparing chalk and cheese. It also depends on many other factors such as muscial perpecption, hearing wavelength, genre of muscial styles that a CI or BTE person undersatnds, enjoys and hears. This area is quite complex even for yours truly, that is despite loving music for over 35 years.

I had total hearing loss in both ears, about 3 years ago, after hearing normally for 29 years. I'm also a musician. Mostly a guitar player but also played the piano, harmonica and others such as bass and even the cello. No need to say how frustrated I am with the CI (Coclhear Freedom BTE).
For normal speech, without much background noise it is very satisfactory. Music, however, sounds little more than noise.
I'm very interested in listening to the songs these 6 musicians composed, specially for CI users.
Does anyone know where I can find the songs to listen to? Thanks a bunch!

Hi all, I'm one of the organisers of the concert, it's really interesting to read so many different responses!

Nelson: The concert was recorded by ABC radio here in Australia, eventually it should be available to listen to from their website ( At the moment I don't know when that will be though.

There are some more reviews starting to pop up if anyone is interested:

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