In the United States, around 1 in every 8 people over age 12 has hearing loss in both ears. And some of those people are super into absorbing or making music.
Even with hearing aids, listening to music isn’t problem-free. They’re primed for making speech clearer and aiding day-to-day interactions, but they don’t enhance the experience of listening to music.
However, just like certain restrictions can give you a new appreciation of different tasks or experiences, so too can listening to music with chunks of sound missing.
It doesn’t have to be miserable or unfulfilling. You may just need to incorporate how you hear into how you listen.
There are quite a few links between listening to music and hearing loss.
For a start, when someone asks you to turn your earbuds down, they may be doing you a massive favor. Listening to your favorite music too loudly can dramatically increase your risk of hearing loss.
The European Union’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) (*takes a breath*) estimates that between 5 and 10 percent of people who regularly use personal music players will develop hearing loss.
We weren’t the first generation to carry our music around with us (see your parents’ MiniDisc player) but we’re certainly among the first to give portable devices like our phones a top spot in our lifestyles — thus being able to listen to whatever we want whenever we want.
Your phone may have a feature that notifies you once you exceed a safe listening level — make sure you stay at or below the recommended volume. If you find yourself gradually upping the volume over time to maintain your desired listening level, you probably need to see a professional about hearing loss.
There’s also a condition called musical ear syndrome, which leads to “auditory hallucinations.” That means you can start to hear music in your head even when you’re not listening to anything.
Doctors may mistake this invisible orchestra in older adults as early signs of dementia. But it’s not a psychiatric condition and not much is known about how it develops outside of its connection to severe hearing loss.
While there still may be much to learn about how it all works (or doesn’t work), it may be summed up best with a misquote of the inimitable Jeff Goldblum, “Your ears, uh, find a way.”
I’m going to come clean about a weird, positive side effect of hearing loss: It basically blocked me from enjoying songs based solely on the fact that they were well-produced.
DJs can put as much time into mixing as they want. I’m not going to hear most of their technical wizardry. Sorry, Mr. Khaled. It’s not “Another One.” It’s another 0.4 at best, for me.
Any music that was churned out for nightclubs never appealed to me the way it appealed to others.
I’ve never had a full conversation with loud music in the background, meaning that clubbing was always an alienating and awkward experience. The social connection was gone. The dancing was all I had, and I sucked at it. (That’s not really attributable to my ears, though. I’m just a bad dancer.)
This fed into how I consume and produce music in a huge way. If the idea behind a track isn’t strong or the melodies aren’t thought-out, I would be able to hear it. My ears stripped away all of the overpolished elements.
As a producer, I make what I like to listen to — music I can fully experience without needing the full spectrum of sound (as much as it would help).
Also, I place a heavy emphasis on interesting rhythms, grooves, and time signatures when I seek out bands and composers. While I can listen to well-considered drones and soundscapes, I also like music that moves.
Because I don’t have an awful lot to work with, I’m highly sensitive to rhythm and it makes me more curious and engaged when a musician is fooling around with exciting, bouncy patterns.
There’s a British movie called “It’s All Gone Pete Tong” about a deaf DJ who mixes tracks using vibrations. It’s a must-watch for anyone with wonky hearing.
While I’m light years from being able to do that, that’s how I feel when I absorb music. I pick up on the vibrations in a very literal, non-Brian-Wilson sense (somewhat ironically, give his own well-documented hearing loss).
That shapes what I like and how I make my own pieces.
Music is one of life’s simple pleasures, so reduced access to it can put a major dent in the happiness and lifestyle of a person with hearing loss.
Being conscious of how you listen and what you like in a piece of music can help you hang on to the parts of music that still bring you joy.
You can either choose to see hearing loss as a condition that robs you, or you can try to take agency through the experience to discover new elements you like.
Ultimately, your ears are unlikely to improve on their own. If you really want to bathe in the loveliness of a Sigur Rós song or headbang to Metallica again with full effect, you’ll probably benefit from hearing assistance.
It’s just worth knowing that music isn’t about what you can hear — it’s about how it makes you feel.
Adam Felman is an Editor for Medical News Today and Greatist. Outside of work, he is a hearing-impaired musician, producer, and rapper who gigs globally. Adam also owns every Nic Cage movie and has a one-eyed hedgehog called Philip K. Prick.