Sidney Bailin


 Composing with Hearing Loss

  July 7, 2016


Is what I'm hearing what it actually sounds like?

That's the question that haunts a composer who does not hear well.

In my case, it's not just volume. My hearing loss includes pitch distortion, which is especially bothersome because I've had perfect or absolute pitch all my life. If you asked me to sing an A, I could. Now, as often as not, if I hear an A it will sound to me like a B. I try continually to recalibrate, but it's an ongoing struggle.

I'll write about the implications of pitch distortion for a composer in another post. The point I want to make here is that it is not just a matter of the music coming through to me too soft. That is certainly an issue, especially in electronic music. If I am not careful I will bump up the amplitude inappropriately, with the result that what I think I am composing is not what people are going to hear.

But it is not just amplitude, it is also timbre and the quality of the sound. Violins, for example, even with my hearing aids programmed for music, sound like noise, scratchy and out of tune. It is not just the fundamental pitch that gets distorted, but the overtones as well, and their relative amplitudes, so that the entire quality of the sound (what makes a violin sound like a violin) turns into something entirely different.

For me, when I hear it.

So how I can I compose at all?

The problem is, composing is not a hobby for me. It is, in a very basic way, who I am.

I deal with it pragmatically. If I am writing for string instruments, I will set the playback on Finale® to some other instrument that I hear as less distorted. That allows me to judge the pitch combinations and, to some extent, the amplitudes. I will use my imagination and memory to extrapolate what it will sound like for the intended string instrument.

If a pitch combination, or a melodic line, is sounding to me very different from what my mind tells me it should sound like, I will tweak the selected instrument playback to figure out if it is my hearing that is distorting the music or if, on the contrary, I am just wrong in my expectation and need to fix the writing.

At some point, I will play it for other people.

In my work with the PARMA Recordings audio engineering team, I was continually asking for their feedback, just as they were asking for mine.

"I'm hearing this a lot softer than it should be, is it my hearing loss?"

"I'm hearing noise distortion at this point, is it really there or is my hearing aid doing it?"

This process turned into a beautiful piece of teamwork, a back-and-forth that could not have been possible had they not understood the music and my artistic intentions, and had they not been patient with my hearing impairment and my intense desire to get the music right.

It is an ongoing struggle composing with hearing loss, but it is one in which one can prevail.

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