As a hearing impaired audiologist, and amateur musician, I often get asked by parents to help select a musical instrument for their child with hearing loss. Although I have not seen a specific research study analyzing this exact question, we can, based on what we know about hearing loss, make an educated recommendation.
Lets first take a look at some fundamental components of music. These include Pitch, Timbre, Harmonics, Loudness, and Rhythm.
Pitch is the frequency of the sound, measured in Hz. For example, middle C is 256 Hz. When we hear a melody we hear changes in pitch. In Western music, the smallest unit of pitch change is the semi-tone and there are 12 semitones in one Western octave.
Unfortunately, people with hearing loss have reduced ability to recognize pitch due to the damage in the hair cells of the cochlea. In other words, some people with hearing loss cannot tell the difference between two pitches that are close together. They need larger and larger differences between two pitches before they can tell that they are different.
Harmonics are a series of tones that are multiples of the fundamental frequency. So if I pluck a middle C on a guitar or a piano, you will not only hear the fundamental frequency of 256 Hz, but also mathematical multiples of the middle C such as 512 Hz. Again, this is a pitch based perception task and is hard for people with hearing loss.
Timbre is the unique combination the pitch, harmonics, the attack and release times of the note, that gives each musical instrument its unique colour and character. Timbre is what tells us a guitar is a guitar or a violin is a violin. This can also be hard for people with hearing loss.
Intensity of sound is measured in decibels. We perceive intensity as “loudness”. Of course when we have a hearing loss, soft sounds are inaudible, but hearing aids and cochlear implants do a pretty good job of allowing us to hear the soft sounds again.
Finally rhythm is the arrangement of sounds in time. It is the beat or pulse of the music, and fortunately, people with hearing loss can still perceive rhythm quite well.
So based on what we know about hearing loss and about the components of music, it is clear that we will have greater difficulty with instruments that require good pitch perception abilities. Below are two suggested list of instruments. The first is a list of good instruments to select for people with hearing loss. The second is a list of instruments that may be too challenging for the hearing impaired ear. These lists are based on theory and some practical personal experiences, but are only recommendations. If you, or your hearing impaired child, have your heart set on playing a particular instrument, by all means give it a try.
- Piano. Piano is a good instrument for people with hearing loss for many reasons. First, it is professionally tuned, so you do not need to tune it up every time you play. If it is out of tune, then then the other instruments playing with the piano, must be tuned to the piano, and not the other way around. Moreover, it is kind of like typing. You see a symbol on the music staff, and you have to hit the corresponding key of the keyboard. The hard part about piano is the same for all people, whether they have a hearing loss to not, which is learning to read multiple note music.
- Acoustic or Classical Guitar. Guitar has frets on it, which precisely cuts the string at the correct point to give the correct note. Daily tuning is required, but the easy solution here is to buy an electronic tuner. I also think acoustic guitar is easier on the impaired ear than electric guitar.
- Fretted Electric Bass Guitar. The fretted electric bass also has frets that precisely cut the string at the correct point. Interestedly, this is why Leo Fender, the inventor of the first electric bass, called it the “Precision” or “P-Bass”. It was the first bass with frets. With bass, one only plays one note at a time, making this easier on the ears to perceive. Also, it is also a rhythm based instrument which should be easier for people with hearing loss. (Although some people just have no rhythm period).
- Electric Guitar. I ranked electric guitar lower than acoustic guitar because when used with a lot of distortion, it is hard to hear the notes through all those harmonics. If you plan to play electric guitar, stick with genres like indy or popular music, and stay away from heavy metal, or hard-core. However, a plus of electric guitar is that you can get an amp with a headphone jack and plug your FM system into that for practicing.
- Digital Drums. One of the problems with drums is that they can get really loud and overload the microphones of the hearing aids and cochlear implants. So this is what is nice about a digital drum kit. You get a volume control that allows you to set the volume at a perfect level, not too loud or too soft. Moreover, all the digital drum kits I have seen have headphone jacks to plug your FM system in.
- Flute. General the woodwind instruments can be good choices because there are lots of keys that allow you to make the correct note more precisely.
- Clarinet. Same as flute
- Saxophone. Same
Challenging Instruments to Play with Hearing Loss.
- Violin. Violin does not have any frets on it. It requires one to listen carefully to make sure you are pressing on the correct part of the fingerboard. However, I have heard of people with hearing loss still successfully playing this instrument. It all depends on your hearing capabilities.
- Viola. Again, same as a violin
- Cello. Same issue as violin.
- Upright or Fretless Bass. Same as violin
- Trombone. Trombone shares some of the same characteristics of a fretless string instrument. One must move the slide to the correct point to produce the proper pitch and therefore requires good pitch perception. Not easy on the ears.
- Acoustic Drums. The reason I put acoustic drums on the “Challenging” list is that this is a very loud instrument. Very loud sounds can over-saturate the microphone or the analog/digital converter in a hearing aid or cochlear implant. This will make things sound really distorted. Interestingly, when I play in my band, I actually try to move as far away from the drums as possible. I still keep the beat using the device I made. See this previous posting.
- Trumpet. Trumpet uses a combination of three buttons or valves to partially produce its pitch. The other influence is the shape of the lips. Therefore, it does require a bit of hearing pitch perception to make the correct note. I successfully played trumpet when I was in high school, but I only had a moderate loss of hearing at that time.
- French Horn. Similar issues to a trumpet. However, I found that the shape of the lips affected the pitch more in a French Horn than trumpet. Not sure why, but the French Horn players in our high school band had a harder time keeping pitch than the trumpet section.
So there you have it. If you are currently playing an instrument and you have a hearing loss, please share your experiences!