Your audiogram and how it relates to music

How much hearing do you need to access this course?

The short answer is, not much. Maybe 100 decibels? The detailed answer is that you can look at your audiogram to check. Here’s mine:

To understand your audiogram, think of the numbers across the bottom, the herz, as representing keys on the piano. These are the frequencies. On the left are the low notes (250 Hz), and on the right are the high notes (up to 9000 Hz). You can see that Middle C on the piano is just above 250 Herz.

The numbers up the left side of the chart represent how loud the sound needs to be before you can hear it. Sounds you can hear at a quiet level (a low number of decibels) are at the top, and sounds that you can only hear if they are very loud are down the bottom (a high number of decibels). 

You can see entries in the chart in blue for my left ear and red for my right. A circle or cross with a downward arrow on the audiogram indicates that I cannot hear that pitch at all.

You can see that for the most part I am profoundly deaf, though there are a few frequencies in the ’severe’ range, which co-incide with Middle C on the piano keyboard. I have more hearing for the low notes than the high notes. For notes in the range of 1500-4000 Hz, I cannot hear at all with my right ear, and have very little hearing with my left ear. But the very highest frequences I do have some hearing for. This explains why when I listen to conventional music, it sounds like it stops and starts – because some notes I can hear and some I can’t. For me, music that works best when it is composed mostly from the range marked in red below the image of the piano keyboard – the octave below Middle C up to G above Middle C. I can enjoy notes in the region marked in blue as long as they are used sparingly, and strangely they work better when played on a piano than sung with a voice.

I need powerful hearing aids to be able to hear anything at all. Without hearing aids, I hear nothing except the odd Harley-Davidson motorbike roaring past! Even though I do have powerful hearing aids, even they are not enough to bring sounds into the range where I can hear speech clearly enough to understand it based on sound alone. However, I can still get pleasure from song lyrics by memorising them and this allows me to recognise them when they occur in familiar songs.

You will notice that the lowest recording on the audiogram is for 250 herz, which is only a little lower than Middle C. That’s because our audiology system focuses on sounds within the range used for natural speech, and speech is usually not lower than 250 herz. Thus your hearing is unlikely to be measured for pitches lower than 250 herz. Hearing aids are designed to give the best hearing within the human speech range, and while sound amplification may still occur below 250 herz, you may find the quality drops off. I find the lower notes on the piano unpleasantly gravelly and indistinct from one another. I believe this is because the manufacturers of my hearing aids did not design them to have good quality sound in that range.

You can look at your audiogram and take a guess at what kind of sounds might work best for you. Even if you can’t understand speech, it doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy music. Based on my experience, if you have some hearing at 100 decibels (or above that, on the chart) and a good pair of hearing aids, or you have a cochlear implant, it is highly likely you can create music that will be enjoyable for you. Below that, I’m not sure. I only enjoy moderate doses of the music notes that correspond with the frequencies where my hearing loss is at 110-115 decibels.

If you don’t have access to your audiogram, don’t worry. You don’t need it in order to make music that suits your hearing. You can do that through experimentation and I will show you how during this course. The audiogram is just to help you decide if it’s worth doing the course. It may also be useful for hearing people who are making accessible music for deaf people – you could use the person’s audiogram to guess at an appropriate range for the notes.

If you download the Preferences Chart I provide for this course, you will find a blank audiogram complete with the image of the piano. If copy the information from your audiogram to this chart, you will be able to make a guess as to which notes on the piano you are likely to hear best, and you can annotate it with your observations about your preferred range of music as you work through this course. Once you have completed Level One, the chart forms an excellent reference you can use when making music for yourself, or you can hand the chart to a professional who will then be able to tailor music to your specific hearing.

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