It is estimated that approximately 100,000 Americans and 325,000 worldwide are using a cochlear implant. Unlike a hearing aid, a cochlear implant is surgically implanted into the ear, doing the work of the damaged inner, or cochlear, part of the ear. In coordination with a speech processor that is worn outside the ear, the cochlear implant converts sound into electrical impulses which are then transferred directly to the auditory nerves in the brain. This is good news for those for whom hearing aids were not successful.
A hearing aid amplifies sound, making it possible for someone hard of hearing to hear what you are saying. With the cochlear implant, the listener can distinguish the words being spoken, but the electrical impulses that are transmitted to the brain, and alter the voice so that it sounds mechanical or artificial, like the voice computers had before they became so sophisticated. For simple conversation this is not a problem, but music is very complex, with much more auditory sound than the voice. The cochlear implant diminishes all the complexity of music reducing it to a scratchy, unrecognizable noise. Cochlear implant designers have been trying to modify the device to overcome this deficit, but to date they have not succeeded.
Dr. Anil Lalwani is director of Columbia University’s Cochlear Implant Center. He decided to tackle the problem from a radically different approach—change the music. Lalwani and his team of researchers are re-engineering the music itself: they are reducing it to the simplest elements that are important for enjoyment of a tune or a song, and removing all the complex structures that cause problems for the cochlear implant. Everyone has different musical tastes, so Lalwani and his team are redesigning music to fit different listeners.
Dr. Lalwani is not content to be rudimentary in his approach. He is involving composers and musicians from the famous Juilliard School to assist him with writing new music that is very simplified and consists of rhythmic instruments or vocals, so that those with cochlear implants will have a larger selection of music to enjoy. Dr. Lalwani hopes to design an app that can be used with smart-phones that will allow users to re-engineer their favorite songs to make them more to their liking and ability to listen.
We’ll certainly be keeping our ear to the ground on such exciting developments in this field!