Richard Turner: Discovering music again with a cochlear implant

Posted on October 16, 2014

I have always loved listening to music. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties living in Manchester in the eighties and early nineties the music scene there formed a soundtrack to my life and it defined my youth.

I grew up listening to Manchester bands like The Smiths, The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses, and in my late teens and early twenties I used to love going to nightclubs like ‘The Hacienda’ and I really enjoyed myself.

Music was one of my biggest passions in life. There is something incredibly powerful about it. It can lift you up when you’re feeling down, calm your mind when you’re feeling stressed and anxious, inspire you with hope or transport you to another time and place.

Listening to particular songs from my past reminded me of different times in my life, when I was feeling happy, sad or troubled.

IMG_1201When I first met my wife, we shared the same love of music, and I discovered that we had very similar tastes. I used to spend lots of money buying CDs and listening to them in my car or on my stereo at home.

I still have a whole wall full of CDs in my lounge.  Then I discovered iTunes. I used to spend hours downloading and listening to music on my home computer.

It came as a total shock to me when I suddenly lost the hearing in my right ear in 2005. This was as a result of an illness, which turned out to be a rare autoimmune disease.

At this point in time, I could still appreciate music, even though I only had one good ear.

Later, when I began to suddenly lose my hearing in my left ear in 2010, I started to wear a hearing aid in that ear. As my hearing dropped more and more, I completely stopped listening to music as I couldn’t appreciate it anymore or hear it properly.

It just sounded like a wall of sound and it was uncomfortable to listen to it. I couldn’t even recognise what the song was, or who the band or artist were, even if it was a song I knew really well and had really loved before.

Along with my sudden hearing loss, as well as finding it very difficult to communicate with my wife and family and struggling to follow conversations, not being able to listen to music was one of the things that I missed most of all.

But I still had my memory of the songs that I loved, and I was glad that I had grown up in such a wonderful time of music in Manchester. The lyrics of the songs were still in my head, along with the memories.

I hadn’t listened to any music for about four years until recently. I finally had a cochlear implant operation in June this year, and I was switched on in late July.

I didn’t know what to expect in terms of what I would be able to hear and whether I would ever be able to hear music again before the operation.

I know that everyone’s experience of having a cochlear implant is different, depending on their personal history of hearing loss and individual memory of sound, as well as their brain’s memory and ability to recognise and process different sounds.

Although I really hoped that my new cochlear implant would work well, I didn’t want to expect too much in case I was disappointed, so I told myself that I would be grateful if I could just hear a little better, as by then I was profoundly deaf.

IMG_1202Thankfully, my experience of hearing after my cochlear implant switch-on has been far better than I could have imagined. I have been able to hear much better than I could when I had a hearing aid.

A few days after the switch-on I put on a CD in my car to see what it would sound like. I listened to one of my favourite Oasis tracks, ‘Live Forever’. I was amazed that I could hear the beat and rhythm of the music really well and follow the lyrics. It was incredible! The clarity and tone of Liam Gallagher’s husky, powerful voice was amazing.

Since then, I have been playing my old CD collection again. My old car’s CD player had not been used in over four years, but now I am using it all the time, playing old tracks that I always used to listen to and rediscovering my love of music.

It doesn’t sound as good as before I lost my hearing, but it is much better than it has been and means that I can finally appreciate music again. It is more difficult listening to new music that I have never heard before and I don’t know the lyrics, but I find that this is easier if I can read the lyrics too.

I know that research is now being undertaken into cochlear implant users’ experiences and perceptions of listening to music, such as a major project currently underway at the University of Southampton.

Research is also being carried out on improving the technology used in the manufacture of cochlear implants, to enhance the users’ experience of listening to music further. From my own experience, advancements like this could be a massive step towards being able to appreciate music again and improve the CI users’ overall quality of life.

By Richard Turner

Richard lost most of his hearing three years ago and has since become a passionate campaigner. His aim is to increase deaf awareness and highlight the emotional impact of hearing loss, as well as showing the positive sides of deafness. Richard regularly blogs about accessibility and other deaf issues at his blog My New Deaf Journey

By Andy Palmer. Andy is Chairman of the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society and teaches sign language in primary schools. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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