Doctor, doctor, help me find GOOD easy-listening music

The Observer newspaper’s now-defunct Music Monthly supplement had and interesting segment called record doctor, where celebs would get a music ‘makeover’ broaden their musical tastes based on what they listened to and liked in the past.

I suspect that I will probably need such a service in the months to come, once my cochlear implant is switched on.

Why? To cut a long story short, cochlear implants are good for understanding speech and various environmental sounds, but music tends not to be so good, at least to people who had normal or useful hearing before getting one.

The long story: I was diagnosed deaf at three, and since then I’ve worn hearing aids. My left ear was profoundly deaf but my right was in the severely deaf range (there are basically four different degrees of deafness: mild, moderate, severe and profound), which meant it was still sharp enough to provide useful hearing with powerful hearing aids. I could talk on the telephone, hear the radio and TV, dictate stuff from an interview on a dictaphone and, most importantly, hear and play music. I had piano lessons for a few years as a child (until my teacher died and that was that), and then taught myself guitar in my teens. I bought music tapes (god, how old am I?) and then CDs at rate of once a month or so, on average. I went to the odd gig.

For all that, I’m hugely grateful to my right ear for hanging in there for so long, and was at least one of the reasons I chose to implant my left ear, as my right is still useful, and slightly better than my left – although there’s not a whole lot of difference between them now, on paper.

The main reason I applied to get a cochlear implant was because I couldn’t use the phone anymore or hear the radio following a deterioration in my right ear in February 2009. It wasn’t even that much of a deterioration, but the sharpness had gone, enough to cross what turned out to be quite a fine line between being able to hear the telephone and simply not being able to and, by extension, the radio and TV (without subtitles anyway), and dictate stuff from an interview etc. But more than that, ordinary everyday conversations became much more difficult.

But one of the most dispiriting effects was that music, while I could still just about hear it, now sounded flat, dull and grey. I could still hear it enough that I could still enjoy my favourite music because my mental jukebox could fill in the gaps from memory, but listening and getting into new music was too hard. As a result, I’m stuck in a kind of popular music time vortex that doesn’t go much beyond 2008.

The last album I actually bought was actually my first MP3 download: Radiohead’s In Rainbows in 2007. Not a lot since then, obviously, but the arrival of one and then two young children sort of took over any spare time or inclination I had for sitting down and listening to music.

The newest album I own was a gift from my wife in Christmas 2008. It’s not a CD, but a DVD: Sigur Ros’s Heima, a beautifully shot film of a series of free gigs in their home country of Iceland in 2007. I enjoy their big sound, but also because their lyrics are Icelandic and therefore incomprehensible so I don’t even need to make the effort. I’m a long-time Cocteau Twins fan for the same reason.

I also used to enjoy the BBC’s Later with Jools Holland music show occasionally, but the last time was when Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon did a sublime acoustic version of Skinny Love, also around Christmas 2008.

Now, you might expect that music will become more accessible to me if my new cochlear implant, when it’s switched on, works as it should. But this is not at all certain because even if they learn to recognise speech and various environmental sounds, cochlear implantees (at least those who are post-lingually deaf ie had normal or useful hearing for a time and then went profoundly deaf) traditionally have at least some trouble hearing and appreciating music to the same extent as when their hearing was halfway useful.

While cochlear implants have come a long way since they first became a routine procedure from around the 1980s, they struggle to convey the full sonic dept of music.

This is simply because instead of the roughly 10,000 hair cells in the cochlea that transmit sound information to the brain in normal hearing, I will have 22 electrodes , or ‘channels’, conveying relatively crude representations of sound in the form of electrical pulses. Since speech only occupies a very small portion of our sonic spectrum, implantees can learn to understand speech and other simple sounds in time. Music, given that it tends to occupy most of the sound spectrum, tends to get, for want of a better phrase, dumbed or watered down.

My CI software apparently includes a ‘music’ programme, but even that seems unlikely to compensate for the ultimate limitations of this type of technology when it comes to interpreting sounds of the musical variety.

I could be wrong. Music could sound OK. Or I may need to use aural rehabilitation exercises to fully appreciate it again. Speaking of which, my aural rehabilitation audiologist at Beaumont Hospital, Lesley, has already hinted that I should focus on simple, easy listening music. I don’t mind listening to ABBA or even the Bee Gees, but beyond that, my taste for middle of the road runs out. Help!

Any suggestions?

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