‘Tis Music to the Ear’
– Deafness, Impaired Hearing and Music
On first consideration, any connection between deafness, impaired hearing and music may seem rather tenuous. Other than to assume the obvious, that hearing problems reduce, or even render impossible, one’s ability to listen to and enjoy music, there seems little else to say. A second assumption would be that the condition would make it impossible to be a musician and play music. However, both assumptions would be wrong.
Whatever one’s tastes may be, few of us could imagine a life totally devoid of music.
‘Music is life.’ (Evelyn Glennie)
The experience of listening to and indeed making music, is a source of joy, as well as a highly lucrative industry. If no music meant no X-Factor or karaoke then its absence could prove a blessing! Music enriches life and may describe a real or fictional scene where the composer paints a picture or the lyric writer evokes deep human emotions. Whilst modern technology produces superb digital clarity resulting in almost faultless recordings, there is a downside and that is volume.
Musicians Hearing Loss
In the world of popular music anyway, it seems that the criteria is the louder the better. Most bands and groups find it necessary to arrive with a van load of electronic wizardry. Banks of amplifiers, woofers and tweeters, together with lasers, dry ice machines and flashing lights have become the apparently essential part of making live music. Even when playing in a small pub, the equipment is set up as if they are playing in the Albert Hall or Hyde Park. Ok, before I am accused of being a Victor Meldrew, allow me to explore this further and ask, not just is this necessary, but more importantly, is it safe? It is a fact that many people in the mobile disco and DJ industry have a higher than average rate of hearing loss. Perhaps exposure to loud music every day isn’t a good thing for the ears?
Workplace Hearing Loss
In the work place the dangers are acknowledged and ear defenders are a statutory requirement. Today, there is a recognised condition called ‘Noise Induced Hearing Loss/Occupational Deafness.’ This is normally associated with noise at work and is governed by Health & Safety regulations. Pile Drivers, Hammering Devices and a range of Pneumatic Impact Tools are the main culprits causing damaged hearing. Perhaps pop festivals should carry the same warning and make ear protectors a requirement.
What are the statistics for people registered as hard of hearing and is there a cause for concern?
At the 31st March 2007, there were 219,100 people in England registered as hard of hearing. 30,500 of these were in the 18-64 age range. By definition, hard of hearing is ‘those who, even with a hearing aid, have some useful hearing and whose method of communication is by speech, listening and lip reading.’ Deaf is ‘those, even with a hearing aid, have little or no useful hearing.’ I am particularly interested in my local area. In Cheshire, the figures were low with 4,345 of which 720 were in the 18-64 age range. Staffordshire was even lower with some 3,175 and just 300 in the same age group. Stoke-on-Trent came out very low with a figure of 410 registered as hard of hearing but there are no figures for the 0-17 age group. I refer to another statistic.
Under 18 18-64
England 1992 2,100 16,000
England 2007 4,100 30,500
Just how do we account for the increases? Allowing for the problems associated with statistics – there are lies and statistics – somewhere there must be a trend, a causal factor. It is unlikely to be increased productivity if employment figures are a factor!
I am left with the question of noise damage from loud music. Is this a real factor? I turned to the music industry for ‘evidence’ with some interesting results.
‘People are going deaf not because music is played louder and louder, but because they are going deaf, it has to be played louder still.’
(Milan Kundera –Czech writer – exiled in France 1975)
‘I have terrible hearing trouble. I have unwittingly helped to invent and refine a type of music that makes its principle proponents deaf’
(Peter Townshend – ‘The Who’)
Townshend suffers from partial deafness and tinnitus. He puts this down to years of exposure to very loud music and regular use of headphones and Keith Moon’s famous ‘exploding drum set’.
A concert by ‘The Who’ at Charlton Athletic Football Club in May 1976, entered the Guinness Book of Records as ‘The Loudest Concert Ever’. Thirty two meters from the stage the noise level registered an astonishing 126 dB. A Vacuum Cleaner at 10 feet registers 70 dB. A heavy truck or motorbike at 25 feet registers 90 dB and even a chain saw can only clock in at 110 dB. (There have been other claims to the dubious title. In Hanover, the heavy metal band ‘Manowar’ produced a level of 129.5 dB. Guinness no longer includes the category as they ‘do not wish to encourage hearing damage.’ In Ottawa, July 2009, KISS achieved a SPL (sound pressure level) of 136 dB. You will be amazed to learn that they were forced by the authorities to turn it down ‘following complaints from neighbours’.)
Pete Townshend gave initial funding to form a non-profit making advocacy group H.E.A.R – Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers. If that is not ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ I don’t know what is.
‘Pete’s having terrible trouble with his hearing. He’s got really bad problems with it…..not tinnitus. It’s deterioration and he is really worried about losing his hearing.’
(Roger Daltry, founder of ‘The Who’ speaking on BBC in 2011)
There is another side to the issues surrounding deafness and music which I find fascinating. That is the ability of composers and players to overcome their disability and achieve greatness through determination and stoic courage.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Germany in 1770. He was an innovator in his development of the sonata, symphony and concerto. Arguably, Beethoven was the greatest composer of all time. Throughout most of his life, he had to struggle with increasing deafness.
‘It is curious that in conversation there are people who do not notice my condition at all. Since I have generally been absent-minded, they account for it in that way. Often I can easily hear someone speaking softly, the tones, yes, but not the words. However, as soon as someone shouts it becomes unbearable.’
It was during the last ten years of his life that he wrote his most important works. Amazingly by this time he is thought to have been almost 100% deaf, following years of struggling with his hearing and bouts of tinnitus. After the first performance of his 9th Symphony, the ‘greatest composer of all time’ fighting the emotions, had to turn round to see the tumultuous applause of his admirers.
Johnnie Ray (1927-1990)
The American singer, writer and pianist, Johnnie Ray, was hugely popular in his day. He led a turbulent private life, but most interestingly to me is that he was another musician plagued by impaired hearing who overcame his condition. When Johnnie was just thirteen, he was injured larking about at a scout camp, resulting in partial deafness in his right ear. He underwent surgery in New York in 1958 which left him almost deaf in both ears. However, hearing aids helped and he was able to continue his musical career. He died of alcohol abuse in 1990.
Dame Evelyn Glennie (1965 – )
‘I am not a deaf musician. I’m a musician who happens to be deaf.’
From the present day, one of the most remarkable stories of achievement by a deaf person has to be that of Evelyn Glennie. She became the first full-time solo percussionist in 20thCentury Western Society. From a child born into a humble musical family in Aberdeenshire, she is now a top virtuoso, undertaking some one hundred concerts a year around the world. If watching her play, the only indication that she is ‘different’ is that she plays in bare feet ‘in order to feel the music better.’
Evelyn started to experience hearing loss at the age of eight. By the time she was twelve she was profoundly deaf. How can a profoundly deaf child become an internationally acclaimed musician?
The best person to answer that is Evelyn Glennie. She has written her own explanation.
‘This web page is designed to set the record straight and allow people to enjoy the experience of being entertained by an ever evolving musician rather than freak or miracle of nature’.
‘Unfortunately, my deafness makes good headlines. If I refuse to discuss it with the media, they will just make it up. Deafness is poorly understood in general. There is a common misconception that deaf people live in a world of silence.
Hearing is basically a specialised form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibrations? The answer is both. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body’s sense of touch starts to take over. Even someone who is totally deaf can still hear/feel sounds. ( timpani produce a lot of vibrations). The low sounds I feel mainly in my legs and feet and high sounds might be particular places on my face, neck and chest.
A common and ill informed question from interviewers is ‘How can you be a musician when you can’t hear what you are doing?’ The answer is of course that I couldn’t be a musician if I were not able to hear.
I became uncharacteristically upset with a reporter for constantly asking questions about my deafness. I said: “If you want to know about deafness, you should interview an audiologist. My speciality is music.”’
(Acknowledgement – quoted with permission from ‘Hearing Essay’ – Evelyn Glennie website. Evelyn Glennie – 1993)