How music sounds with a hearing implant — listen below!

imageThe Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (by gichristof)

Ever wonder what the world sounds like with a hearing implant? At the moment, it’s not the best. One person describes it as hearing everything through a robot voice, and more complex sounds, like music, are almost impossible to comprehend.

Tone and timbre — what make music sound like music — get lost with a cochlear implant, a highly controversial, surgically-implanted device that allows the deaf and hard of hearing to experience sound. Without picking up on timbre, for example, you can’t distinguish the sounds of one instrument from another, so you can’t hear what’s a guitar and what’s a flute if they play the same note.

Now, two scientists are out to change that. A new electronic processing system for implants is currently being developed by electrical engineer Les Atlas and bioengineer Jay Rubinstein at the University of Washington (home to TEDx event TEDxUofW). This new system makes implants more sensitive to complicated sounds, a huge breakthrough that not only makes music sound better, but also helps users distinguish between sounds in a noisy room, which — right now — is really difficult to do with a cochlear implant.

Below — what a pretty famous song sounds like through a normal cochlear implant, thanks to Seattle radio station KPLU:

And now — the same song through Alas and Rubinstein’s new implant:

(If you didn’t pick up on it, that is “Scarborough Fair” by Simon and Garfunkel.)

While we’ve got you thinking about cochlear implants, you can learn more about their relationship with music in Charles Limb’s TEDMED talk on the subject. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t tell you to check out Rachel Kolb’s inspiring TEDxStanford talk on deaf culture and advocacy in a world so often geared toward the hearing:: "Navigating deafness in a hearing world."

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    But I hear music just fine!
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