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Listening to Songs with a Cochlear Implant

Posted By Naama Tsach, PhD, Tuesday, April 2, 2019


Many adults who experienced hearing loss later in their lives have memories of their favorite songs from the time when they had more hearing. These songs elicit feelings and reminiscences that relate to different times in their past, and songs that they long to hear again. 

People connect to songs through melody, words, or both.

The experience of listening to songs with a CI is challenging. The perception of music with the implant is imperfect. The main challenge is to recognize the melody but there are other challenges as well including:

• Isolating a specific sound in the presence of other sounds
• Distinguishing between various musical instruments
• Distinguishing between the vocalist(s) and musical instruments

To understand the lyrics of a song, you would need to be able to understand words in the presence of musical accompaniment, which is a very difficult speech perception task. Nonetheless, you may enjoy listening to songs with your CI—even if you have never listened to the specific songs before.

In this post we will describe some principles that may help you enjoy listening to songs.

Following the words of a song can also be difficult for people with typical hearing. In order to understand the lyrics, even people with typical hearing listen to a song multiple times or read the lyrics while listening to a song. Some people are less concerned about the lyrics and simply enjoy listening to songs without understanding all of the words.

It is more difficult to understand the lyrics of a song if:

• There are several vocalists, rather than one
• The musical accompaniment includes many instruments, rather than one or two
• The instrumental accompaniment is markedly louder than the singer, masking the vocalist’s voice
• The vocalist’s articulation is not clear
• The song’s tempo is fast
• There are few or no repetitions of lyrics
• The song lyrics are in a language other than yours

Word Pronunciation in Songs

The rhythm and inner structure of words in a song may change when it’s being sung. Do you know the word “slehey?” In the Christmas song Jingle Bells, we typically pronounce the word “sleigh” as “sleheigh.” (“Oh what fun, it is to ride, in a one-horse open sleigh”). Or in Leonard Cohen’s famous song Hallelujah, the last word in the chorus is pronounced “Halleluhuhuhu-jah.” That means what? Yes, that’s correct. And it's not trivial.

Some songs include a chorus of “na na na” including Freed from Desire by Pink and the second half of the song Hey Jude by the Beatles. In Hey Jude there is a four-minute vocal segment comprised mainly of “na na na.”

When people sing, they often need to stretch their breath until the end of the musical phrase. This can cause the last words, and especially the last sounds in the sentence, to sound weaker and less clear.

Practice Listening

Before starting your practice, choose a quiet place, close the door (and the window), and ask other people in your house to reduce background noises. In addition, it’s highly recommended to use an assistive listening device such as a streaming accessory. If you use a CI on one ear and a hearing aid on the other, don’t take your hearing aid off when you listen to music.

Now, let’s discuss choosing a song. People who listened to songs in the past may choose to listen to the songs they loved before. People who have never listened to songs before may start by listening to popular songs or to songs by popular artists. You may also ask relatives and friends for their recommendations—that’s a good way for you to participate in music with the people you spend time with.

After choosing a song to listen to (and considering the conditions mentioned above), print out the song lyrics. Although there are versions of songs which have the lyrics appearing in music videos, these are not necessarily the best versions for you to start practicing with.

Almost every popular song has several cover versions. Among many versions of the same song, note that the ones that were recorded during live performances may be more difficult to follow. Start by listening to the acoustic version of the song—one vocalist with one instrument, or even only the vocalist version without any musical accompaniment. Sometimes these versions are slower; that’s helpful when you’re listening to the lyrics. You can progress gradually. Listen to the same song in different versions with more than one vocalist. Also listen for the richer and more complex musical accompaniment until you reach the original version of the song. You may also find a version of the song melody without the vocal (i.e., singing). This can be an interesting experience too. At the end of the process, you can choose the version that you enjoyed the most.

Some CI users prefer to listen to male singers and others prefer to listen to female singers. It can be another criterion for you when choosing your favorite song version. If you find a vocalist who is easier for you to understand and who you particularly enjoy listening to, try listening to more of that artist’s songs.

Listen to the songs you love repeatedly until you learn some of their words by heart. This is a nice exercise for your memory. It will also allow you at some point to listen to that song without the lyrics in front of you in order to understand it as well as recognizing it spontaneously (even when you stumble upon it). And you may even sing it!

Now, let’s practice listening to Hallelujah (by Leonard Cohen) step by step:

Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen):

1. Imogan Heap, no musical accompaniment, with lyrics:

2. K.D. Lang accompanied by piano:

3. Jeff Buckley accompanied by guitar:

4. Melody without singing:

5. Leonard Cohen, official version, with vocal and instrumental accompaniment:

Good luck and have fun!

For additional reading about music appreciation with a cochlear implant:

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The mission of the American Cochlear Implant (ACI) Alliance is to advance access to the gift of hearing provided by cochlear implantation through research, advocacy and awareness.