Music For Bionic Ears: A Moment of Truth

Wednesday 17 November 2010

It’s a strange experience, having to play your music to an audience of one and waiting to find out their response, face to face. Even stranger, when they know nothing about your music; stranger still when you know they’re not hearing what you’re hearing.

On Monday I got to meet four cochlear implant wearers at the Bionic Ear Institute, as part of the Music For Bionic Ears project. They had differing levels of ability in perceiving music, and of experience in hearing and playing music. I played each of them my Study No. 2 and finally got some feedback on whether or not my experiments would have any positive effect.

The new tuning system seemed to work surprisingly well. The types of chords, and the processed organ sound I had used, weren’t as cluttered and muddy as I feared they might be. All four reported that they could hear chords and harmonies clearly, and that the sounds were, for the most part, pleasant to hear. (By pleasant, I mean that too much muddled sonic information tends to sound like white noise to implant wearers.)

It seemed almost too good to be true when a couple of listeners responded that they could identify the organ sound, hear distinct chords and harmonies, and moreover enjoy them. Previously, they had not found these types of sounds pleasant. This was a much better reaction than I had hoped. It seems that using a just intonation scale instead of standard equal temperament has a big effect on how implant wearers hear music. This could be a useful path of inquiry to follow, examining whether equal temperament is an obstacle to music perception and which tuning systems are clearest.

All listeners could identify the organ sound, although some also heard other instruments in the mix. This may have been due to the synthesised nature of the sound, and the other electronic treatments I had made. There are other aesthetic and philosophical implications to whether or not timbral recognition will be an issue in the finished piece, which I should follow up in a separate post shortly.

The piece I played was not focussed too much on melody, relying instead on presenting a succession of distinct sounds with varied loudness, duration, and harmonic complexity. Implant wearers often have a problem in detecting the small steps between notes that usually make up a melody, so it will be interesting to see if a different tuning has any effect. Alternatively, my piece may continue to work in a way that is less reliant on melody.

The Hearing Organised Sound blog has more information about the meeting, with further details about what the other composers in the project are up to. Their approaches are all quite different and are finding out other details I am now trying to take on board.

  1. [...] At least I can console myself that the tunings I’m using, which may sound off to most people, seem to sound pretty normal to implant [...]