Engineering music to sound better with Cochlear Implants


An illustration of a cochlear implant, created for The Language of Medicine, a popular medical terminology text.

Hearing aids fail to help when the hearing loss is profound. In such cases, cochlear implantations are done to amplify sounds and improve the clarity of speech sounds. Cochlear implants in general are designed to process speech, which is a lesser complex auditory signal compared to music. People with cochlear implants thus find it extremely hard to comprehend the complex tonalities in music.

Prudence Garcia-Renart, a musician who gave up playing the piano a few years ago says “I’ve pretty much given up listening to music and being able to enjoy it. I’ve had the implant for 15 years now and it has done so much for me. Before I got the implant, I was working but I could not use a phone, I needed somebody to take notes for me at meetings, and I couldn’t have conversations with more than one person. I can now use a phone, I recognize people’s voices, I go to films, but music is awful.”

People with severe hearing losses not only have their cochlear hair cells damaged but also have lost auditory neurons that transmit signals to the brain. Therefore, it is not possible to tweak the settings of the implant to compensate for the loss of auditory neurons, says Anil Lalwani, MD, directory of the Columbia Cochlear Implant Program.

Dr. Anil Lalwani says “It is unrealistic to expect people with that kind of nerve loss to process the complexity of a symphony, even with an implant.”

Dr. Lalwani and members of Columbia’s Cochlear Implant Music Engineering Group are trying to simplify the music and engineer the sound to be more appreciable and enjoyable to listeners with cochlear implants.

Dr. Lalwani says “You don’t necessarily need the entire piece to enjoy the music. Even though a song may have very complex layers, you can sometimes just enjoy the vocals, or you can just enjoy the instruments.”

The group at the moment is testing different arrangements of musical compositions to learn which parts of the music are most important for listener enjoyment. These results might not be the same as for somebody with normal listening and remains one of the main research questions in this study.

Dr. Lalwani says “Our eventual goal, though, is to compose music for people with cochlear implants based on what we’ve learned. Original pieces of music that will possibly have less rhythmic instruments, less reverb, possibly more vocals–something that is actually designed for them.”

Eventually in the future, Dr. Lalwani believes that software will be able to extract the important features from an original piece of music and re-engineer it for listeners or even give the listener the ability to engineer their own music.

This study is titled “Music Engineering as a Novel Strategy for Enhancing Music Enjoyment in the Cochlear Implant Recipient.” Gavriel D. Kohlberg, Dean M. Mancuso, and Divya A. Chari are the other contributors in this work.


Source: Columbia University

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