Implant research puts new spin on an ear for music

DANIELA ANDREWS doesn’t like to complain, but she does miss music.

Wearing a cochlear implant means the 30-year-old can still perceive sound, despite developing a condition three years ago that caused her immune system to attack hair cells in her inner ear, gradually destroying her hearing.

Before she went deaf she loved music, particularly jazz and classical, and spent many happy hours playing the piano. But while cochlear implants have proven remarkably effective at restoring sound to the profoundly deaf, they have not been successful at making music sound like much more than one big noise.

”A lot of people with cochlear implants are so grateful to be able to hear and speak, they don’t want to express disappointment about the music side of things,” Ms Andrews said.

”But for those of us who have had hearing, a world without music is still a pretty silent world.”

The problem of music perception is one that scientists at the Bionic Ear Institute in Melbourne have been working on for many years, but one research assistant, Hamish Innes-Brown, decided to take a new approach.

He has won funding for six composers to work with the institute’s scientists to create music especially for cochlear implant recipients.

Ms Andrews will provide feedback on the music, which is likely to be unconventional. It will be performed at a concert this year.

The implant works in tandem with a microphone and processor worn like a hearing aid behind the ear, and electrically stimulates the auditory nerve so recipients can hear sound.

”With a cochlear implant, there is a large array of sounds and it’s about the brain trying to separate and make sense of them. So the richer the music is, the harder it gets,” Ms Andrews said.

”Orchestral music is particularly difficult because it has so many different instruments.”

She said other implant recipients had developed a taste for rap, due to its strong drum beats.

Kate Hagan | July 12, 2010

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