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What Does a Hearing Loss Sound Like?

August 12th, 2010 by | Tags: , , | 3 Comments »

Here’s the quick answer:  There’s no way to know for sure.

Due to the unique nature of each person with hearing loss, their individual anatomy, their prior auditory experiences and auditory development in their brain, and differences in electrode placement in each particular person’s cochlea (in the case of cochlear implant users), there is no one answer for how hearing loss sounds.  It’s like asking someone, “What does red look like to you?”  Well… it looks like… red.  Understanding others’ perceptions of any sensation (sound, sight, taste, etc.) can be described but never quite pinpointed by an outside observer.

That said, there are some great simulations of what we think a hearing loss and various amplification systems might sound like out there on the Internet.

The closest I’ll ever get to inside someone else’s brain!

While simulation sites are great and manipulating the parameters provides for some fun (and challenging) listening experiences, I encourage you to take all of this with a grain of salt.  Remember that:

  • We can never really know what things sound like to each individual user.
  • Saying that this is how music would sound with a “mild” hearing loss is somewhat deceptive because ten different people can have completely different audiograms which all qualify as “mild” hearing loss — things will sound different based on each person’s individual configuration of hearing loss.
  • Though some CI electrode arrays have up to 24 electrodes (points that contact the cochlea), testing has shown that CI users can demonstrate pitch perception of far greater numbers of tones. (See Kwon and van den Honert, 2006 and this 2006 abstract, “Pitch Steering with Sequential Stimulation of Intracochlear Electrodes”)
  • What sounds “natural” or “normal” to a person who has lived a lifetime with typical hearing is not “normal” to a person with hearing loss.  Our brains mold themselves around the input that they receive.  For a CI user, the CI sound is optimum and normal.  Their brains learn to take in this input and use it — as is proven when CI/HA/Baha users perform well in auditory only tasks, listen to speech in noise, or differentiated between minimal pairs (words that are similar in all but one sounds, like pan-man, pin-pan, etc.)
  • Ultimately, the proof is in the output — people speak what they hear, and cochlear implant/hearing aid/Baha users are able to achieve very natural, melodic vocal quality, and even learn to play instruments or sing.  Though the voices on the simulations sound robotic, this is not how the voices of CI users sound.

Written by

Elizabeth Rosenzweig MS CCC-SLP LSLS Cert. AVT is a Listening and Spoken Language Specialist Certified Auditory Verbal Therapist. She provides auditory verbal therapy, aural rehabilitation, IEP advocacy, consultation, and LSLS mentoring for clients around the world via teletherapy. You can learn more about Elizabeth's services on her Website or Facebook.



August 12, 2010 at 8:07 pm

I’ve learned the truth of that last point! My boys don’t sound robotic, evidence that they do not hear and repeat that. In fact, they laugh at the simulations! :-)

I think that we don’t even know how similarly we hearing people hear… I’ve heard it said that we humans have a relatively rudimentary sensory system compared to certain animals, but that our brain fills in to create continuity. But, if we we a cat or a bat… who knows! As long as we are satisfied that we are able to communicate and enjoy our hearing sense, that’s probably what matters most to us. And that is exactly why CIs are so great, because they provide that same experience.

August 13, 2010 at 3:00 am

This might sound a bit difficult to understand but unlike folks who are congenitally deaf or those with limited hearing disability, those with progressive deafness struggle to define or visualize things since their perception seems to suffer from a continued regression in what they can understand.


July 27, 2011 at 2:32 pm

A very interesting post!

I agree that people can perceive sounds in a different way even if they are diagnosed with the same level of hearing loss.