Dr Paul Whittaker OBE – ‘My hearing aids and music’

Paul Whittaker is a freelance speaker, musician, performer and workshop leader who is also profoundly deaf.

In this blog post, he talks about his experiences using hearing aids for music.

“As a professional musician my hearing aids are of vital importance to me. For probably over 20 years I had Phonak PPC-40 Superfront aids and I loved them: never had to turn the volume up very far at all, and they had so much power. For playing, for listening to music and for theatre interpreting they were just wonderful.

“Of course, all good things have to come to an end and they finally died. On visiting my regular NHS audiology department I was told that they could not be replaced, so I contacted Phonak and they told me they had some in stock. Regretfully, they were no longer NHS issue so when I returned to the hospital a couple of weeks later I was given two Phonak Naida digital aids and told they were the best available ones for music. I was also told that, because I was very specific about what I wished to hear, it would take ages to find the correct settings for me, if ever.

“It’s worth mentioning that, several years before, I had tried a couple of digital aids but, at that time, their power was nowhere near good enough for my hearing loss, so they were forgotten and I went back to my analogue ones.

“I’m well aware that the sound processing in a digital aid is very different from an analogue one, so was prepared for a change when I got the Naidas. Within a week I took them out and did without any aids for almost six weeks. To be honest, they were not properly programmed for me, but I found sounds to be too quiet, too compressed, too tinny and largely unrecognisable.

“What was particularly frustrating was that this happened in early December at time when, as a church musician and choir master, I really needed decent aids. Playing the piano and organ was so unpleasant, aurally, whilst I was simply unable to hear my choir properly and had to rely on them telling me if they were right or not.

“I no doubt tried to hide my frustrations yet suspect I failed miserably. For six weeks I did not wear any aids, the longest I have ever been without them since the age of seven. Eventually, having little faith in the hospital audiology department, I contacted Cubex in London, who I regularly visited when I was a child. They don’t usually see people who haven’t bought aids from them but agreed to see me.

“The first surprise I had was having an audiogram done and finding there was nothing at all on it. That made me realise just how much hearing aids do assist the little residual hearing I have. The second surprise was having the aids reprogrammed then stepping out into Oxford Street and hearing lots of strange noises, many for the first time.

“From London I went straight to Cornwall for work, where I kept asking people, “What’s that? What’s that sound?” for several days. I could hear things like fridges humming, kettles boililng and seals honking on the beach: all well and good if that’s what you want to hear, but I still found listening to music an unpleasant experience.

“It didn’t really get any more pleasant over the next few months. I stopped listening to music, found theatre interpreting increasingly hard and more tiring, rarely played the piano or organ for pleasure and still couldn’t cope with training the choir. All of this affected my confidence badly; probably affected every area of my life, really.

“I kept wearing the Naidas but eagerly sought a replacement. Conversations with various audiologists didn’t inspire confidence and I became increasingly aware that hearing aid manufacturers are not really interested in people who have been wearing aids for many years. Their target audience is people with acquired hearing loss and a disposable income.

“That was another problem. It was apparent that there was nothing available on the NHS that would suit me so whatever I did find would have to be paid for, somehow. After some time I found myself trying a pair of GN ReSound ‘Sparx’ aids. They sounded better than the Naidas, had more power and were clearer, so I got them.

“On the whole they do a decent job; better than anything else I’ve come across. They’re OK for playing the piano and organ, enable me to manage with the choir (though not to the extent of when I had analogue aids), I listen to music again (also partly because I bought a ‘Bose’ Bluetooth speaker – excellent), but they’re still not great for live concerts. Choral music and orchestral music are still too compressed and I no longer derive the pleasure from those that I use to.

“I would give anything to have those PPC-40 aids back. As it is, I can see a time in the future when I will no longer wear aids, a view shared by my current audiologist. The aids I now have may have a total shelf life of 5 years, and I’ve had them for over 3 already. I can’t afford to keep buying new ones, and although hearing aid technology is changing rapidly I have it on good authority that those changes are not geared towards people like me, but towards new wearers.

“I know I’m not alone among deaf musicians in desiring analogue aids. Some are coping well (and love) their digital ones and I’m delighted for them. For me, however, it seems the future is more likely to be a silent one. Somehow the music will continue for me, but in what form, and with what aids, is unknown.”


For more information about Paul Whittaker, please check out his website and twitter feed.

And please do continue to email the project team with your ideas and experiences: musicandhearingaids@leeds.ac.uk.


Project Update – November 2015

ESCOM PosterA busy ten months!

Ten months into our AHRC-funded project, the ‘Hearing Aids for Music’ project team are reaching the end of a busy period of data collection.

Our initial study, a small-scale clinical questionnaire, was completed in August. We shared our initial findings at the Ninth Triennial Conference of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music.

Clinical survey

Hearing aid users reported that they frequently experience problems with music listening and almost half the sample reported that this negatively affects their quality of life. Most participants had never talked with their audiologist about music listening and, for those that had, outcomes had rarely been successful.

The results support the existing literature showing that hearing aids may negatively affect music listening. But we are also aware of positive, success stories about music listening using hearing aids.

In-depth interviews

In order to find out more about both positive and negative experiences, we are currently conducting an interview study. We have talked with people with varying levels of hearing impairment about their experiences. We had many questions but in particular we wanted to find out:

  • Why are some people more satisfied with their hearing aids when listening to music than other people?
  • Do live performances cause more issues than listening to CDs at home?
  • Do specially tailored ‘music programs’ help?
  • What are the pros and cons of using assistive listening devices (ALDs) for music listening?
  • What kinds of discussions are people having with their audiologists about music?

Next steps

We are now taking time to analyse the interview data along with participants’ audiometric data. In the New Year, we will begin work on our national survey to be conducted later in 2016.

Discussion forum and webinars

The team had a great meeting with Danny Lane, Artistic Director at the charity Music and the Deaf recently, exploring how best we can create networks of people to share knowledge and ideas about music listening using hearing aids.

If you have any thoughts, please email the project team:


You can also get updates about the project and information about music and deafness on our twitter feed @musicndeafness.


Calling all Audiologists!

Audiology and Music Listening Survey


We are conducting research into the extent to which audiologists are presented with issues relating to music listening by their patients.

If you decide to take part in this study, you will be asked about your training level and background, your experiences of discussing music listening issues and optimising hearing aids for music listening, and your perceived confidence and ability to do so.

Questions are mainly fixed choice, with a few open ended questions. The whole survey should take no longer than 10 minutes to complete.

Please click here to access the survey.

Thanks for you time!

‘Music and Hearing Aids’ Project Team

‘Hearing Impairment and the Enjoyment and Performance of Music’

Conference at Institute of Acoustics, Kingston University, 9 July 2015

Only six months into our project, we were pleased to be invited to talk at an Institute of Acoustics (IoA) conference on the topic of hearing aids and music. Delegates included audiologists, music therapists, technical consultants, acousticians, psychologists and, of course, hearing aid users themselves.

Opening the conference was Mike Wright, Chair of the Musical Acoustics Group at the IoA, who began by reminding us that there is a longstanding need to understand music listening for people with hearing impairments. He cited a famous quote by the deaf percussionist, Evelyn Glennie, about the nature of our senses:

“…in the Italian language… the verb ‘sentire’ means to hear and the same verb in the reflexive form ‘sentirsi’ means to feel. Deafness does not mean that you can’t hear, only that there is something wrong with the ears. Even someone who is totally deaf can still hear/feel sounds”. (Glennie, 2010)

In the first talk, Graham Frost, an audiologist and technical consultant, introduced principles about the effects of deafness on music perception. Deafness affects intensity or ‘loudness’ perception, but it also affects how we perceive frequency or ‘pitch’ and temporal aspects such as ‘rhythm’ or timing. For example, we recognise different instruments because they have different harmonic profiles and onset rise times. Music can also cause people with hearing impairments to experience tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears), hyperacusis (extreme sensitivity to sounds) or diplacusis (experiencing different pitches or timings in each ear). Graham argued that we cannot predict the effects of deafness on music perception from standard audiometry alone, only measure thresholds of sound intensity. Every hearing loss is unique and can only be partially compensated for.

Next, acoustician Peter Mapp (Peter Mapp Associates) talked about assistive listening devices (ALDs) for music and speech. At home, listening to the TV or radio, many people can simply turn the volume up. However, in live settings, this is not possible and many people experience issues with reverb, and background noise. The good news is that many venues use T-loop, infrared and new Wi-Fi technology to feed sound directly to the hearing aid. The bad news is that not all venues are using the best microphone technology and this can affect both speech and music intelligibility. Manufacturers may be wary of Noise Regulations as they do not want to be sued for causing hearing damage from over-amplification!

Acoustician Carl Hopkins (University of Liverpool) then talked about a project which aimed to help musicians with hearing impairments access music by feeling vibrations. Carl showed how our sense of touch is far more limited than hearing. For this reason, the team identified the best pitch range for feeling vibrations on the skin of the hands and feet and also showed that hearing people are no less sensitive that deaf people to vibrations. Perhaps vibrations could be used to help all musicians in group performance? The researchers demonstrated the musical power of vibrations by playing a Beatles song ‘Day Tripper’ in separate, acoustically isolated rooms where instead of hearing each other, they could feel the vibrations of each other’s instruments. Click here to see the video.

After lunch, Music Therapist and Educator, Christine Rocca (Nordoff Robbins / Mary Hare Schools), presented a number of case studies from her work with children with cochlear implants (CIs), some of whom also wear hearing aids. The children at Mary Hare explore pitch glides and interval imitation in the context of familiar songs like ‘Humpty Dumpty’, often exploring major and minor intervals. The therapists and teachers use both recorded and live accompaniments for the children which helps them pick out their part. Christine highlighted that music is ‘multi-sensory’ and even very young babies can learn social ‘turn-taking’ and imitation skills by playing musical games.

On a similar theme, Janet McKenzie, a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) at the Cambridge Hearing Implant Centre spoke about musical development in children and adults with CIs. For CI users, music is often a positive, unexpected outcome; people who had never previously experienced music are suddenly able to access musical rhythms and melodic shapes. In fact, due to changes in candidacy criteria, some people are now being implanted just so that they can access music and environmental sounds.

Stephen Dance from the London South Bank University shared his research on the hearing acuity of music students at the Royal Academy of Music. So far, 2,576 students have completed audiometric tests and the team have identified patterns of hearing loss attributed to noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) in musical settings. The findings showed that players of certain instruments such as the organ, percussion and brass are most at risk of hearing loss. There were also some lateralised effects; violinists’ and horn players’ left ears are affected more than their right, and piano accompanists have worse hearing in the right ear potentially as a result of working with singers. The ‘notch’ in the audiogram as a result of music-induced hearing loss seems to be at 6kHz rather than 4kHz for musicians but this could be consistent with different kinds of hearing loss.

Finally, we presented initial findings from our patient survey of two UK audiology clinics, one NHS, one private. The short questionnaire asked hearing aid (HA) users about their music listening experiences, effects on quality of life, and the extent to which they had discussed music listening with their audiologist. So far, results showed that HA users frequently experience problems with music listening and almost half of the sample reported that this negatively affects their quality of life. The most common problems reported were a lack of fidelity, difficulty hearing words in songs, and issues hearing at live music performances.  The data also suggested that most participants had never talked with audiologist about music listening, and for those that had, the outcomes had rarely been successful.

The closing discussion that followed raised many issues. Hearing aid manufacturers have responded to demand from the user market to make HAs small and discreet. This has meant that batteries are also smaller and less powerful (< 3 volts), while conversely, the digital signal processing contained within them for optimising speech amplification has become more and more complex. Multi-channel compression requires a lot of processing power and therefore battery power. Perhaps simpler processing would be better for music? One idea would be to set up a person’s HA for each instrument or the type of music they listen to the most. But, as Evelyn Glennie once told me, every acoustical situation is different and even the same instrument never sounds the same.

The group also discussed the problem of uptake for hearing aid users. There are 6 million people who would benefit from hearing aids in the UK alone but only 1.4 million wear them regularly. Many people find it difficult to take the time to adjust to the new sound world provided by their new HAs, which audiologists know to be beneficial in the longer term. Perhaps if HAs were designed for amplifying music as well as speech, more people would wear them?

If you have any thoughts or questions, or would to share your experiences of listening to music with hearing aids, please email us musicandhearingaids@leeds.ac.uk or join our Discussion Forum.


We are recruiting for a new research study

Do you use hearing aids?


We need participants for an interview study taking place between July – December 2015 about music listening.

We are recruiting hearing aid users interested in taking part in a study about music listening. Interviews will last for 1 hour and you will also receive an audiometric assessment at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

If you are interested, please email your answers to the following questions to musicandhearingaids@leeds.ac.uk:

  • What is your level of deafness?
  • Are you musically trained?
  • Has your hearing level changed over the last 2 months?
  • Have you experienced any of the following in the last 2 months: auditory processing disorders / auditory neuropathy / fluctuating hearing loss / recent acute hearing loss / ear infection / significant asymmetry in hearing loss / problematic tinnitus or hyperacusis?
  • Do you use one or two hearing aids?
  • Do you have a cochlear implant?
  • Is English your first language?

To take part, or if you have any questions, please email musicandhearingaids@leeds.ac.uk.

Many thanks,

Music and Hearing Aids Project Team

Music and Ménière’s Disease

Alan JacquesAlan Jacques is a musician based in Edinburgh. He was interested in talking about his experience of changes to his perception of music as a result of Ménière’s Disease, a rare progressive disorder of the inner ear. Read his story below:



“I am a retired psychiatrist living in Edinburgh.  I retired early with a view to pursuing a lifelong interest in music.  I am a pianist and gained the ATCL and LGSMD in Performance shortly after retiring.  My particular interests have always been in accompaniment and chamber music and I have considerable experience of public performance, both on the piano and as a choral singer and for a short period a not very competent choir conductor.  My musical abilities are circumscribed: I am a good sight-reader and enjoy the interpretative aspects of reproducing music, but I am poor at memorising, improvising, or creating music.  And I have never had much ability to ‘hear music in my head’.

“Looking back I wonder if I have always been hard of hearing in my right ear, since when Stereo arrived to the great excitement of musical teenagers I never could work out where the various instruments were.

“About twelve years ago (aged 58) I began to develop Ménière’s disease with all the usual symptoms of fullness in the ears, tinnitus, hearing impairment and severe dizzy turns, and the characteristic very variable course.  I am now moderately-to-severely deaf in both ears and constantly require hearing aids.  About two years into the illness I began to notice a problem with pitch perception – I wrongly accused a highly competent singer of singing the wrong note, for example.  I then noticed that I heard different pitches if I listened to a tuning fork in each ear.  I only recently learned that this is called diplacusis.  Like the illness, it was very variable.  At its worst, I couldn’t recognise music I was listening to because I was hearing all the wrong notes.  A striking example was a wedding I went to ten years ago where the choir sang Parry’s I Was Glad, which I have sung hundreds of times – I had to ask what it was they were singing.  At best there were times when everything got largely back to normal, though even then I noticed that when I moved from playing one piece to another it took me a few bars to register the tonality.

“Things have got steadily worse particularly in the last two or three years and I appear to be now permanently at the worst level.  If I play a note several times I can sing an approximation to it, but if a tune is played I cannot recognise it unless by inspired guesswork.  I cannot recognise chords, can’t tell major from minor, cannot understand modulations, and have great difficulty even in guessing what instrument is playing in broadcast or recorded music.  Concerts are a no-go area, because they just sound like an awful cacophony. This is not just a problem caused by my hearing impairment itself, for I hear the noise of music.  It’s that my cochlea is sending the wrong messages to my brain.  Interestingly I sometimes hear a note related to the note I am playing (e.g. a fifth out), but more often it is just a pitch-less noise.

“My musical brain is as far as I know working perfectly well, indeed possibly overworking.  MRI scans and neurological tests confirm that this is a purely cochlear problem.  What I am noticing about the mental element in ‘hearing’ music is that my brain is, as it were, ironing out the messages it is getting, so simplifying what I appreciate.  When the music modulates I ‘hear’ it in the first key until it finally gets through that I’m in the wrong zone.  The other example of my brain being creative is in the difference between familiar and unfamiliar music I am playing.  With very familiar music I somehow imagine that I am hearing the tunes and some of the harmony, but if I try to play an unfamiliar score it is completely meaningless.

“I have continued to play throughout my illness and my teachers say I am producing a more than acceptable and improving musical performance.  To me it is a noisy clatter.  I had to give up all ensemble playing two years ago, but this was actually more to do with the fact that I had had to cancel two performances because of Ménière’s dizzy spells and, the last straw, had a dizzy attack in the middle of a public recital and had to terminate the performance.  I am now concentrating on solo playing and for example am now on my fourth cycle of studying the Beethoven sonatas and am performing them one at a time at a local little music club.  In the past year I have found it necessary to stick almost entirely to music that I know to some extent – I simply can’t make sense of unfamiliar music.  I surprise myself with how much I enjoy playing, though I do wonder how much of that is a lifelong habit rather than present experience.

“I would be interested in meeting or corresponding with other musicians with similar problems.  I gather that diplacusis is a much commoner problem than I thought – a survey of British orchestral musicians is said to have reported it in 5% of respondents with 12% experiencing distortion (Laitinen & Poulsen, 2008). I know that the needs of hard-of-hearing and deaf musicians are at last being addressed, but I guess I am not the only musician who has this severe form of ‘cochlear amusia’.  I have only located one other person with the problem through the Ménière’s Society (he had felt forced to give up his musical life), but I intend to try again.

Alan Jacques

June 2015

Laitinen, H., & Poulsen, T. (2008). Questionnaire investigation of musicians’ use of hearing
protectors, self reported hearing disorders, and their experience of their working environment. International Journal of Audiology, 47(4), 160-168.

It seems to me that music perception is a very complex process. Our brain works hard to make sense of musical information and, when things go wrong, our auditory brain can to some extent ‘fill in the gaps’ but not perfectly.

Alan’s story reminded me that the amplification of acoustic sound and music using hearing aids is only one part of the process – there is always a person at the end of the technology.

If you want more information about Ménière’s disease, please see the Ménière’s Society website.

Or to share your experiences, click to our Discussion Forum and tell us more.


Hearing aids at the Thackray Medical Museum

Thackray logoGoing back in time: hearing aids through the decades

In March this year, just a few weeks into our project ‘Hearing aids for music’, the project team visited the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds.

We wanted to learn something about the history of hearing aids from the important collection of amplification and audiology equipment housed there.

But we also had another agenda… We wanted to see if there was any evidence in the collection of hearing aids having been used to amplify music – not just speech.

Read more