That’s Why I Like the Blues

Playing and listening to music can be a challenge to people with significant hearing loss.  For some people, the sound quality is poor.  Others find music noisy and confusing.  They can’t make heads or tails out of things.  It all sounds really bad.

Yet for other people like myself, music is quite enjoyable.  Not only that, there are some people with significant hearing loss like myself who even play an instrument in a band.

So why the huge differences?  Why do some people with hearing aids and cochlear implants find music to be unpleasant, while others love it?  This is a huge topic that is currently being researched at Universities as we speak.  Over time I will touch on many of the reasons that I am aware of, including the settings of the hearing instrument, the additional equipment you may use (e.g. FM systems), previous experience with music, musical training, and even the type of music you listen to.

One way to enjoy music is to become familiar with a certain genre.  Lets take the Blues for example.  What I like about the blues is that it has a certain predictable pattern we generally call the “12 Bar Blues”.  Basically it uses the following pattern:


In any scale there are 7 notes we use.  The most familiar would be the C scale.  So in the key of C, the notes and their corresponding chords would be would be:

Numeric Note Chord
ii D Dmin
iii E Emin
vi A Amin
vii B Bdim

So if I was playing the blues in the key of C I would play 4 bars of C, then 2 bars of F, 2 bars of C again, one bar of G, one bar of F, then 2 bars of C again.  I can figure this out for any key; all I need to know is what key are we playing in.  So if I am having a jam session with the band mates, I just ask for the root key.

By becoming familiar with the music, my brain seems to make more sense out of it.  It seems less confusing and less anarchic.

Our brains do the same thing when we are talking to one another.  When we are given a familiar phrase in a familiar language, we can predict what is coming next.  For example if some says ‘Please pass the salt and ______”, we pretty much know that the last word is going to be pepper.  But if someone says, “We were talking about______”, the last word could be anything.

Music is also like a language.  So if we stick to genres that have predictable patterns and cycles, it becomes easier to hear, enjoy, and even play.

And that’s why I like the Blues.


Let’s get rid of some of that freakin’ noise 1: Directional Microphones

As promised, I am going to continue the discussion on getting rid of noise.  In this post, I want to touch on the topic of directional microphones that can be found on hearing aids and cochlear implants.

But before doing so, lets summarize again the two main problems you have with a sensorineural hearing loss.

  1. Loss of Audibility
  2. Loss of Clarity

Loss of audibility simply means that you can’t hear certain sounds well. They are too soft.  So we need to make them louder in order to hear them again.  Interestingly, the loud sounds may still sound OK.  Also, the level in which sounds become uncomfortable for you may only be raised a little bit.

Fortunately, today’s modern digital hearing aids do a really good job at making things audible again.  They amplify soft sounds more than loud and amplify some pitches more than others (based on your hearing loss).  Cochlear implants also do a great job of bringing sound back to people who can barely hear at all.

Loss of clarity especially in noise means that when there are other noises present, you have a hard time communicating.  Amazingly, people with normal hearing can still communicate when the signal to noise ratio (SNR) is 0.  In other words, if the person talking to you is 65 dB and the other people around you are also 65 dB (think a restaurant), that is a 0 dB SNR.  Normal hearing people can still understand in the situation (makes me sooooo freakin’ jealous).

We folks with hearing loss can’t do that.  We need a higher SNR and the more hearing loss you have, the higher the SNR you need.

Directional microphones on the hearing aid (and cochlear implant) are one way to get rid of noise that actually works.  There are some great sites that explain how they work.  This link has a nice article that explains directional mics.  Also check out this link that shows what a modern directional mic system can do.

In a nutshell, directional microphones work by picking up sound in front of you more than behind you.  The assumption is that the person talking to you is typically facing you.  They get rid of about 4 to 5 dB of noise.  This amount of improvement is sufficient for adults with mild to moderate degrees of hearing loss.  But once we get to a moderate-severe degree of hearing loss (around 60 dB HL), the directional microphone won’t be enough.

So who should get a directional microphone? Well, every person with a hearing loss, regardless of degree of loss.  Folks with milder losses will need it in a restaurant, shopping mall, store etc.  People with moderate losses or greater may even need it in the home if the fridge noise, dishwasher, or TV is on.

But people with moderate-severe, severe, and profound hearing loss must have an FM system if they plan on stepping out of the house.

Time for one more rant:

If you as an audiologist are not picking hearing aids with at least a directional microphone, you are only doing half of your job.  All you have done is addressed the audibility problem, and are doing nothing about hearing in noise.  If you don’t plan on adding a directional mic, I hope you have picked a hearing aid that can use an FM system (see earlier rant).

If you as a hearing aid wearer insist on only wearing tiny “dirty little secret” hearing aids that have no room for a directional microphone or no capability of using an FM system, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. Good news however, is that the hearing aids with directional mic and FM capability, while not exactly the “tiniest” ones out there, are still quite small.

Who’s That Cute Doggy?

I know I promised a discussion on directional mics and FM systems.  But it is a pretty big topic and I thought I would quickly explain why I have a dog on my banner.

Well that adorable creature is my Hearing Ear Dog named Amie.  Amie was trained by the Lions Foundation of Canada and I have had her for over 12 years now (she is 14 now). Amie has travelled extensively with me.  In fact, she has been to Switzerland several times, parts of the United States, and every province in Canada (except Newfoundland…I really want to visit there as well).  In total, she has probably been on over 400 flights with me.

Hearing Ear Dogs help by alerting the owner to such sounds as an alarm clock, doorbell, oven timer, microwave oven, telephone, baby crying, and smoke alarm.  Because one cannot sleep with a cochlear implant on, Amie mainly alerted me to these sounds at night.  Without Amie, I could not get a proper sleep as I was always concerned about the possiblility of not hearing the fire alarm.  Moreover, you cannot keep gainful employment if you do not wake up to go to work.

Amie is retired now.  She unfortunately has cancer in her bladder and may not have much time left.  But she is the most loving, kind, intelligent living thing I have ever known.

If you would like more information about Hearing Ear Dogs, click this link.

Challenges of hearing loss.

Many people think that a hearing loss simply means that we need to make things louder.  It is actually more complicated than that.  Not only do we need to make sounds louder, but we also need to make sounds clearer.

Most people have what is called a sensorineural hearing loss.  This usually means that the tiny hair cells of the inner ear, or cochlea, have been damaged.  This link here has an excellent picture of both healthy and damaged hair cells of the cochlea.

I have added the picture below.

The cochlea has 2 types of hair cells; inner hair cells (IHC) and outer hair cells (OHC).  The function of the outer hair cells (OHC) is actually to make soft sounds louder.  These are the first to get damaged.  If this were the only damage you have in your cochlea then amplifying only the soft sounds is all you need in order to hear better.

The second type are called the inner hair cells (IHC).  Inner hair cells actually trigger the nerves that send the message to your brain.  As you can see from the picture, the inner hair cells can also be damaged.  The greater your degree of hearing loss. the more damage you also have to the inner hair cells.

Inner hair cell damage results in pieces of sound missing altogether.  It makes speech unclear.  It makes it harder to pick out speech from background noise. For musicians, it makes it harder to recognize the correct pitch of a note.

Today’s modern digital hearing aids that carefully amplify soft sounds more than loud sounds and amplify certain pitches more than others, do a very good job of replacing the function of the outer hair cells.  But as the hearing loss gets greater and you have more inner hair cell damage, we need to clean up the signal even more.

In my next blog entry, I will explain how directional microphones and remote wireless FM systems help to clean up the sound and make hearing aids work even better.

Make Sure the Hearing Aid Can Use an FM System.

Well I hate to make one of my first blog entries a “rant”, but I must.  Events this week have compelled me to speak about this topic.

This week, two things happened that kinda ticked me off. First, I was helping a child with FM system problems only to find out that the problem was simple.  She just needed to have an FM + M program added to her hearing aids.  The other thing that happened was that I was at an event for adults with hearing loss.  I wanted to demonstrate how the MyEasyLink FM system can help in noise, however, most of the adults either did not have a telecoil program on the hearing aids, or they had no idea how to activate it.  So even though I spoke to quite a few adults with hearing aids, no one could listen to the benefits of an FM system.

Furthermore, most of the adults I spoke with had never even heard of an FM system.  This lends credence to the theory that the number one reason most adults don’t use these systems is because no one ever told them about it.

So here are my pleas:

  1. To Audiologists and Hearing Instrument Practitioners.
    1. For adult patients, please ensure that you select a hearing instrument that can use an FM system, even if you do not think they need it right away.  The FM system can be used with direct audio input, a telecoil, or in the case of a Phonak aid, the iCom.  Make sure the patient knows how to get to the correct program in their hearing device that can use an FM system.  Activate the telecoil at least. I know you also need to keep things simple, but try not to limit the patient’s options too much.
    2. Please introduce the concept of an FM system at least to patients with moderate-severe losses or greater. At this degree of hearing loss, only an FM system can provide them with the required signal-to-noise ratio needed to understand speech in a noisy environment.
    3. For pediatric patients, please double check to make sure the FM + M program has been activated.  Too often I trouble shoot FM problems in schools, and find this as the cause.
  2. To People with Hearing loss.
    1. Please don’t always go with the smallest possible hearing aid.  You likely won’t be able to use an FM system with some of these devices and that seriously limits your listening options.  But the hearing aids that can use an FM system are still quite small!  And FM systems are small now too.
    2. Please understand that the hearing aid is but one device that will help you hear better.  You can hear better in noise if you add another device such as an FM system.
    3. Please don’t say the problem is that everyone else mumbles.  Its not true…you need help.  Your audiologist would be delighted to get you all the help you need.

I am reminded of a cocktail party I attended recently.  I had my SmartLink+ FM system in my left hand, my glass of single malt Scotch in my right hand, and off I went schmoozing.  Several people asked what the FM system was and I gladly explained.  Now here’s the funny thing.  A lot of people said, “You know, my dad’s (or mom’s) hearing is way worse than yours.  He could use one of those things”.  Folks, I have lost essentially all of my natural hearing. I have far greater hearing loss than the typical senior.  So even though I have a hearing aid in one ear, a cochlear implant in the other ear, two FM receivers and an FM transmitter, I was perceived as having LESS of a hearing loss (or disability) than a typical adult with hearing loss due to aging.  These additional devices did not make me look more “disabled” because they help me function in a noisy place like a party.  Struggling and not being able to communicate would have made me look like I have more of a hearing loss.

So lets not limit our options please.  Thanks!

Welcome to my blog on living with hearing loss

Hi everyone,

I am a man who wears many hats.  I have a lovely, intelligent wife and a handsome, amazing son.  I have the sweetest dog in the world named Amie.  I love to fish, kayak. hike, play tennis, golf and travel.  I have a fantastic career with Phonak Canada as the FM and SoundField Product Manager.  I have a degree in Audiology from the University of Western Ontario.

I also learned how to play the bass guitar and have played in several bands live.  I have even mustered up the courage to sing a few songs.

And I also lost all my hearing.  I currently use a Cochlear Implant in my right ear and a hearing aid in my left ear.

But I am all of these things, not just a person who can’t hear.  I am always searching for ways to live my life to the fullest, despite my hearing loss.  That’s what this blog is all about. I plan to share with you both personal and professional stories about overcoming challenges associated with hearing impairment.

Stay tuned for updates on my journey!