Will People With Cochlear Implants Always Sing Out Of Tune?

September 3, 2019. Cochlear implants have changed the lives of so many people who otherwise would be struggling to hear the simplest sounds.  But what happens if you are a musician or singer?  A cochlear implant (CI) is not designed for music, but for speech.  The information needed to distinguish notes that sound similar, such as you’d find in music, is not programmed in current CIs, as Joan Gallant of Rusticoville discovered.

Joan explained that “I have been singing a good part of my life, including church choirs, college choir which required auditions, and in later years a seniors’ choral group.  A few months ago I was told I was not singing in tune!  I had been playing the piano and singing while reading music with someone who sings and also plays piano but by ear.  I thought maybe my piano was out of tune so invited over someone who not only plays but teaches music.  She said my piano was fine and had me play a few notes and sing those notes.  She also said I was not singing in tune.  I have since done some research and most research says a person with a CI doesn’t hear the same as others with normal hearing or even a hearing aid.  This is apparently the reason I cannot sing in tune.  I am thinking that sometimes ignorance is bliss.  Our choral director says sing anyway.

I have also read that children with two CIs at the same time are more able to enjoy music and apparently more able to sing in tune.  Another comment was that there is an app which a person can use to help him or her get the correct pitch.  I have spoken to a singing teacher and asked if he ever taught anyone with a CI and he said no.  He thinks it may be doable.  Apparently if I start doh with the right pitch I can sing the scale correctly but singing anything else I am on and off pitch.  I am hoping to take a few singing lessons to see if I can learn to once again sing in tune.  I was never a soloist but always enjoyed singing in a group or by myself.

Since Joan has a CI from MED-EL, Jodi Ostroff, Clinical Account Manager, Canada, MED-EL Corporation, Canada was contacted to see if she knew of an app or knew someone who could help Joan.  Jodi replied by saying that “that there are lots of music training apps, which can be fun and helpful for music training. Johanna Boyer is a music researcher who works for MED-EL and is a CI recipient. She wrote an article regarding such music training apps, which can be found on the MED-EL Blog at https://blog.medel.com/our-music-specialist-ci-user-johanna-shares-her-secret-tips-for-the-best-music-training-apps/”  An invitation was extended for Joan to contact Johanna.

So what does music sound like through a CI?  Sean Mills and Mark Fletcher of the University of Southampton in England explain in an article that for people with CIs “music can be hard to enjoy. Smooth melodies become harsh buzzes, beeps and squawks. Much of what they used to love about music is now absent. The implant is poor at conveying the pitch of voices and instruments, as well as the quality (timbre) of the music. This can make it hard to follow the melody, understand the lyrics, or separate one instrument from another.”  Their article includes an example of what people with CIs actually can hear in a simulation, noting thatalmost all of the raw, untrammelled emotion that Ed Sheeran brings to his performance of Thinking Out Loud is lost, leaving the music abrasive and flat.”  To read the whole article and listen to the simulation, see https://theconversation.com/heres-what-music-sounds-like-through-an-auditory-implant-112457

Joan was one of the participants in a 2014/2015 study done at the University of Prince Edward Island by audiologist Derek Hughes of Campbell Hearing, for his thesis towards a Masters in Science (Audiology).  The study asked participants to perform tasks from the AIRS Test Battery of Singing Skills in Persons with Cochlear Implants.  (AIRS refers to Advanced Interdisciplinary Research in Singing.  For more information see https://www.airsplace.ca/).

All participants were put in a sound proof booth with a computer and followed 11 components as shown below:


The components tested in a study at UPEI. (Slide courtesy of Derek Hughes)

Two of the components focused on the children’s song ‘Brother John’, or, for those of us who grew up watching Chez Hélène on CBC, ‘Frère Jacques’.  Don’t know the song?  Watch the You Tube video, in both English and French:  https://youtu.be/pa_iTP5kL3g.

This deceptively simple song has five sections and ten tonic notes, as identified below:

Component 2 Brother John

The 5 sections and 10 tonic notes of the song ‘Brother John’. (Slide courtesy of Derek Hughes)

A tonic note is the first note in any piece of music.  If the key is C major, then C is the tonic. If the key is in A-flat major, then A-flat is the tonic.  The melody itself has a range of tones, like going up and down a ladder, but in 10 spots, the same note should be reached, as you can see below:

10 tonic notes

The 10 tonic notes of the song ‘Brother John’. (Slide courtesy of Derek Hughes)

None of the participants could hit the 10 tonic notes.  Their pitch tended to go down, not up.  All the participants in the UPEI study conducted by Derek Hughes had some daily involvement in music.  Some had been musically trained before losing their hearing.  This led to the conclusion that musical ability wasn’t the issue, but the cochlear implant.  The study confirmed that CIs are not designed to process music.

CIMG2991 May 28 2019 Derek Hughes Fran Salsman Joan Gallant Alma Nunn

Left to right: Derek Hughes, Fran Salsman, Joan Gallant, Alma Nunn. All three women have CIs, and used to sing in choirs before their hearing loss. Joan continues to sing after receiving her cochlear implant. (Photo credit: Daria Valkenburg)

Joan Gallant did get in contact with Johanna Boyer, and continued with singing lessons for a short period. “Although I am making extremely small improvements, I have a very long way to go and I find this extra concentration and focus very exhausting.  I guess I really want to be able to sing in tune.”  After getting a singing app to test her pitch she stopped her singing lessons to concentrate on pitch.  “My pitch is all over the place. My friend says I’m singing in the cracks between the keys.   I can’t seem to hold the note.

Joan has been invited to participate in a MED-EL study in Durham, North Carolina in October and hopes this will help give her what is needed to be able to sing in tune.

Thank you to Joan Gallant for sharing her story, to Jodi Ostroff, and to Derek Hughes for sharing the results of his study. Do you have a cochlear implant?  What is your experience with music?  Email us at hearpei@gmail.com or comment on this blog.  You can also follow us on Twitter: @HearPEI

© Daria Valkenburg


September Chapter meeting:  Tuesday, September 24, 2019 at 9:30 am at North Tryon Presbyterian ChurchGuest speaker​s​:  Brenda Porter, who will lead a discussion on taking responsibility for dealing with your hearing lossAnnie Lee MacDonald and Daria Valkenburg will introduce you to some of the Tinnitus Relaxation Therapy techniques they learned this summer.

Fall Speech Reading Classes: Level I will run Tuesday afternoons, from 2 to 4 pm in Charlottetown, beginning September 24, with popular speech reading instructor Nancy MacPhee, and will run for 10 weeks. Email hearpei@gmail.com for more information or to register.   What will you learn? Level 1 introduces the most visible spoken consonants, as well as thematic groups, such as colours and numbers. Students practice with phrases in class groups as well as with the instructor. General info on hearing loss, as well as coping and communication strategies, are covered. Speech reading takes lots of patience and practice, but it’s also fun!


8 thoughts on “Will People With Cochlear Implants Always Sing Out Of Tune?

  1. I wear cochlear implants and hearing aid bilateral deafness and I love to sing, but I will only sing in the car or to myself never done it in front of someone else, I dont know what my voice sounds like to others. I was thinking to upload it here since its saved on my iphone but obviously this is your site so I can’t do that there isn’t a way to upload a file anyways. Would you like to hear a clip? I just want to get an outsider’s honest opinion. I always wonder if it sounds as good as I feel…


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