“I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, no treble…”
I’m a music producer who can’t hear sh*t, a rapper who didn’t understand his own vocal tone until 2019, and a composer with less than half of all frequencies available to him. As someone for whom music has played a major role since about 5 years old, it does suck.
My hearing loss is high register, meaning that I have the top chunk of frequency missing.
An adult with happy, healthy ears hears up to around 16,000 Hertz (Hz). I’d be lucky to get as high as 8,000 Hz without my hearing assistance. Realistically, my natural ears operate at full function between 2,000–4,000 Hz and taper off.
Sounds get about 20–40 percent of the way up my hearing range, then they stop.
My meat-ears (which I differentiate from my RoboEars that can actually hear) miss most of the good bits. I can hear the bassline of “Seven Nation Army,” but the squealy guitar solo comes through a little spotty. Most Mariah Carey songs become karaoke versions for me once she starts going for her crescendos (and I’m always more than happy to fill in the gaps for her — very, very badly).
Gradual onset hearing loss created a strange, creeping dread and frustration around my musical passions and ambitions.
It’s like having an old friend who texts you back less and less often, which means hearing loss isn’t exactly a comfortable ride at the best of times. I could write a book about the dent it’s made in my social toolkit. And, until I became a hearing aid user in 2019, this condition wasn’t great for relationships or professional life either.
It sucked. But it sucks less now.
I’m going to take you through the initial fears and apprehensions I experienced, especially when I didn’t know what it was. I’ll share the way hearing loss played havoc with my social and inner lives, and how I recognized when I needed help (and gear) to get me through.
Most importantly, I hope you’ll know you’re not alone — or you’ll have the tools to let someone else know they’re not alone. After all, with hearing loss, loneliness is one of its prevailing features.
Okay, hit it.
I first read my hearing loss as a number of different disrupting elements. I thought it was the little, faint dropouts in conversation and the self-making excuses.
Why do I find each conversation impossible? It’s my personality. I’m too distracted, terrible at people, and deeply uninteresting. Why can’t I think of anything to say?
Maybe it was the volume in the room, the diction of speakers, distractions and other interference.
Soon socializing became too much effort and I found my confidence start to wane — an experience that slowly took shape over 29 years — which is a huge amount of time to think you’re sh*t at conversations.
Think of it as wearing glasses. If you’re wearing them, take them off for a second. Try to read something 5 feet away. You can just about make it out, right? And you’ll get there eventually.
But now, imagine focusing that hard for 3 straight hours at a party. Being social with hearing loss matches the physical effort of straining to poop for an entire day.
I formed a protective shell, based on random humor stuffed with non sequiturs (because who needs to know what sentence came before if you’re shouting BUTTHOLES or CHEESE in unsuspecting people’s faces? Also, no, I don’t have many friends left from this era).
I became both immensely shy and abrasively extroverted to shield myself. I could shut myself away for weeks and then be the guy screaming nothingness at anyone who’d listen.
I began to feel apprehensive when approaching people for help or advice. The feeling that accepting the advice could’ve meant a death sentence for my music career.
So I stewed in the silence at parties, hoping no one noticed, waiting for it to be over. I could clock people talking to each other over the music and feel oddly jealous, then guilty, then miserable.
Losing my hearing was a slow fade that I continually told myself wasn’t happening. But just as they can be an odd choice for ending a song, a slow fade is deceptive.
It makes you develop coping mechanisms without knowing. Your brain slowly steps in to fill the gap in interpretation. You start to lip read, completely unaware it’s happening. Suddenly, every conversation boasts a “Huh?” and “What?” count in the double figures.
(Hands up… who’s said, “Yep! Absolutely” without having the foggiest idea what you’re responding to? I’ve nearly joined several cults by accident.)
As a musician, this auditory double bluff had unexpected effects on my work. My brain had musical ideas, melodies, lyrics, rhythms, but whenever I attempted something with my hands, the results sounded half baked or absolutely oppressive and dense.
No gear I bought seemed to do what it said. I knew the sounds that I wanted, but couldn’t hear what any mixing was doing.
I was no musical genius (and am still not), but I felt like a Formula 1 racer driving a car made from vodka Jell-O shots using a steering wheel made from nothing.
I am so far from the first person to make music without working lugs.
Beethoven put out some absolute heaters without hearing a note of it after reaching 44 years old.
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys (one of pop’s great minds) constructed breathtaking harmonies from what was in his head alone, having use of only one ear after being hit in the head with a lead pipe as a kid.
Andrew Huang, a hugely inspirational producer, is often vocal about his own hearing loss experience. He’s released 50 albums, boasts a couple of million subscribers on his YouTube channel, and has helped others learn the process and mechanics of sound building for free. He inspires me not just for making the music but for being able to guide others through their journey.
And TOKiMONSTA, one of the most inspiring producers in the 21st century, developed a rare brain disease called Moyamoya that blocked her understanding of music altogether. Only brain surgery helped, and her new album is a powerful testament to overcoming what must have been a completely bewildering experience.
Many more musicians have sudden, jarring transformations in their hearing range from too many years stood next to amp set permanently to ‘mosh pit’ level. Blown mind from the guitar solo? That’s the idea. Blown eardrums? Less so. Noise-induced hearing loss is alarming.
I’m lucky to have avoided hearing problems of this depth and suddenness. But it’d be a barefaced lie to tell you building instrumentals is easy when you can only hear 40 percent of what’s going on.
If you’re into music, even as a listener, and can feel the use of your ears slipping away, you may relate to the slow-burning confusion and grief that accompanies gradual onset hearing loss.
When you’re trying to make music (and make it in music) and you have hearing loss, it’s like trying to fingerpaint with shoes on your hands.
Music was also so much of a social dependence for me at the time, such an unhealthy obsession, that it never occurred to me to stop. I had to strain to keep wanting to do music as hard as I would strain to hear it — my self-esteem depended on it.
But that was deeply unhealthy. I started to take on any obligation and collaboration I could. I’d shun my non-music friends to jam with someone. I started to lean on music too much.
I was putting all of my eggs in a basket I never got to fully experience. By 21 years old, I was recording an album with a signed band, soundtracking a sketch group doing a monthlong tour, trying to compile a comedy rap musical, and hold down a below-minimum-wage job to pay rent.
In short, I started trying to achieve the impossible without any resources. Without any idea how hard I was overcompensating for my faltering ears. For all the shortcomings, I blamed myself.
I barely slept. I worked loads but completed nothing. Every song I finished or gig I played, I’d have anxiety attacks about something else I’d left unattended for the duration. And I was doing it all for free, hungry for any exposure my music could have — and that I could have to the musical experience.
As a result, I lost every day job I could land, ended up on medication for depression and anxiety, and had a complete emotional collapse. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a man in a supermarket-bought suit, hair manic, beard disheveled, screaming at the sky in public, brandishing a keyboard stand, but it ain’t pretty or reassuring.
Bear in mind that this was 10 years ago. The journey has continued since — but at a slow pace that drained much of the passion and joy from its own unfolding.
In 2018, it became too much. The hearing, at this point, got bad. I had colleagues I have never understood beyond “hello.”
Back in my day job, I was writing this piece on hearing loss as a general research article when my jaw dropped. I discovered that 14 of the 15 symptoms applied directly to me. (No sh*t, Sherlock. They’ve dominated your last decade, where have you been?)
I went to visit an audiologist. He tested me with audiometry, or as real science heads call it, “the bleepy bloopy headphone game.”
Then he gave me the kind of look usually reserved for news of a forthcoming Nickelback album and said, “Yeeeeeah… it’s not good.” (Oh yeah? I got that from the Nickelback look.)
There’s your “Eureka!” moment. Hearing loss had muddied my relationship with my passions, screwed with my social circles, and left me with very little but disappointment. But it was real now. I couldn’t cover-version-of-Wonderwall this one away.
And so started the 9-month wait for hearing aids. I live in the UK, where we have a National Health Service that provides free healthcare. I could pay £3,000 for new hearing aids or wait for a waiting list to clear. As a writer and musician, £3,000 was most certainly not available. So waiting it was.
Boy, did I wish I’d sorted this sh*t out before my social tics formed
It was only during this time that I really felt the weight of knowing I had untreated hearing loss and could potentially lose it. Until I had hearing aids, I would be stranded. Now with a diagnosis, I could see how stranded I was.
Before diagnosis, I had a creeping sense of ennui and alienation, as if my personality or skill level as a musician were the issues. (And, believe me, both who I am and how I perform served their own pitfalls on multiple occasions.)
This diagnosis meant that I could stop taking the blame for my condition. In my head, I’d replay crappy rehearsals or mixing feedback I couldn’t understand, over which I got needlessly defensive.
Now I was watching these scenes through a new lens — a growing unease surrounding a deep-rooted physical setback that could upend everything I understood about the music I love and make.
I could start to take myself seriously as a person and craftsman.
I felt a sense of shame as to why I’d let this go on for so long. I had bands fall apart because I was rusty, disappointing, tired, and uninspired. I went straight home from gigs without socializing. I’d half-assed every element of my life, not knowing why I couldn’t engage. And knowing what to do had been so hard.
Why hadn’t I looked for a way out?
Being able to see the exit made me take a lot of alone time to reflect on how my life would tangibly change.
Knowing a solution was around the corner meant I felt the depth of my hearing loss worse than ever. I scrapped 4 months of music I’d been working on and forked out money I didn’t have to have an engineer re-record everything and take over the mixing and mastering.
On April 1, 2019, I became Robocop for the first time. And it was fucking badass (right after I cried because I heard some birds).
Music suddenly came to life. I found myself re-listening to years of old, loved albums, reliving that joy of discovering Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” Sigur Rós’ “Takk,” and Mos Def’s “Black on Both Sides.”
Hearing aids aren’t perfect, but I reckon they’ve near enough doubled my frequency range. And as the frequency grows, the love for music, socializing, and life in general grows. You literally have a wider bandwidth for enjoying things.
Suddenly, I was living in my studio, just playing with sounds and making beat on beat on beat on weird noise on texture.
My rap voice changed from The Wonder Years’ Paul to the realm of Chali 2na. Simply hearing and being able to control what was coming out of my mouth allowed me to speak with more conviction, poise, and confidence.
My self-esteem grew alongside understanding how I sounded. I was less worried about how others perceived both my conversation and vocals — I actually had quite a nice tone that I could now control.
After 15 years of learning, it took a little silver thing behind my ear to help me manage my sound and express what I wanted. When I was fiddling around with those little equalizer graphs that make all the difference, I could hear that difference.
Being able to hear the difference drove me to be more motivated and competent in music.
The same way I could now fill out gaps in my frequency, I also plugged holes in my workflow, worked out what I needed, and got advice from my music connections on how to move forward. This allowed me to make music confidently enough to request money in exchange for services and opportunities.
I’m not full time, but this is the first year in which I’ve consistently paid a chunk of rent with my music.
Whether it’s an understanding of my condition or the added confidence that accompanies actually hearing people, my friends now seem to see me more as an equal, rather than an aggressively self-aware buffoon. (They were right to treat me this way. I was.)
My hearing aids have allowed me to add value to relationships, rather than burning through friendships by becoming a novelty item for an amusing distraction or a dumping ground for pity — all roles I willingly filled before I got hearing aids.
This may well be down to their new understanding of my health problems, but it’s also due in no small part to my changing connection to the world and actions while I’m talking to people. Conversation is fun again. I don’t have to be a silly, weird bastard to make people smile or stick around anymore. And that’s just lovely.
My marriage, too, became much easier, although not without its pitfalls. My wife now understands that it’s not that I haven’t been listening, I genuinely struggled to hear her. (Sometimes, I really wasn’t listening. Sorry, Jackie.)
However, I was surprised to learn that my wife is also a very, very loud person. This created bursts of unanticipated volume out of nowhere. Bringing this to light took some navigation and tact.
“Too loud” was not a category of person I had any reference for during pre-hearing-aid life. Now I know that it’s not only real, but also that I live with a person who falls squarely into that category. Telling her so has led to some (not quiet) disagreements.
But all relationships have a grounding in communication. And I can do that now.
Most importantly, I am kinder to myself. I know what to listen for in my own head. I’m more selective about the projects I do. I value my time more than the number of people I think might listen to me.
Music is fun again, and people even more so. More like cheering aids, am I right? Anyone?
Okay, so I still have some work to do…
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. You can check out his music here.