People have an initial fear that nothing will sound the same if they lose their hearing. However, there may be hope. Scientists are looking to re-engineer cochlear implants to make music sound more appealing to the ears.

The Problem with Music

Most cochlear implants are designed to process speech. However, they have trouble when it comes to music. Many people with the implant report improvements in understanding, hearing and speech, but listening to music becomes less enjoyable.

“I’ve had the implant for 15 years now and it has done so much for me. Before I got the implant, I was working but I could not use a phone, I needed somebody to take notes for me at meetings, and I couldn’t have conversations with more than one person. I can now use a phone, I recognize people’s voices, I go to films, but music is awful,” says Prudence Garcia-Renart, a musician who gave up playing the piano a few years ago.

Auditory neurons that transmit signals to the brain are lost with severe hearing loss. Speech is a simple auditory signal, making it easier for implants to process. The same can’t be said for music. Implants are not able to compensate for the loss of auditory neurons.

Upgrades to Cochlear Implants

Scientists are hoping to help people like Prudence find a solution for enjoying music. Instead of engineering a cochlear implant to make up for lost auditory neurons, scientists are trying to re-engineer music. “You don’t necessarily need the entire piece to enjoy the music,” says Anil Lalwani, MD, director of the Columbia Cochlear Implant Program. “Even though a song may have very complex layers, you can sometimes just enjoy the vocals, or you can just enjoy the instruments.”

Currently, Dr. Lalwani and his team are trying to learn which parts of music are the most important for enjoyment. They believe that software will be able to convert music for listeners. “Our eventual goal, though, is to compose music for people with cochlear implants based on what we’ve learned,” Dr. Lalwani says. “Original pieces of music that will possibly have less rhythmic instruments, less reverb, possibly more vocals—something that is actually designed for them.”