Optimize your hearing aids for music listening

By | April 24, 2021

Hearing loss often occurs gradually, but over time music will sound differently to you. If you’re a music aficionado, you might notice that when a new instrument comes in, you’re not sure which one it is. You might struggle to hear lyrics. All music may sound more “flat.”

Hearing aids can bring you the sounds you were missing, though it may take a little back-and-forth with your hearing provider to find the right settings for you. Hearing aids can also help minimize tinnitus, repetitive buzzes and other sounds generated internally. 

Tinnitus, which is linked to damage from noise, often afflicts musicians who may have a history of performing in loud venues, as well as music fans who attend a lot of shows without ear plugs. 

A man plays guitar along with text advice on wearing hearing aids and music.

Don’t just turn up the volume

Music has a wide dynamic range, with large swings in volume and pitch.

Especially if you have a profound hearing loss, the large dynamic range of music is a challenge. Music lovers who are hearing aid users sometimes turn the volume up so high on their headphones they risk more damage, notes audiologist Ruth Reisman, of Northwell Health Lenox Hill in Manhattan.

In the past, hearing aids couldn’t handle those larger ranges without distortions. But they have become much better at processing music in recent years. A conversation with your hearing instrument specialist or audiologist about a custom hearing aid program or assistive listening devices could make a big difference. Don’t wait to be asked: You may need to bring up the subject yourself, one survey suggests.    

Ask your hearing care professional to create a music program in your hearing aids

Most modern hearing aids have the capability of containing several different programs, which are specialized pre-programmed settings that help people hear better in specific environments.

Hearing care providers can create and customize these settings for different sound situations, such as conversation, noisy environments, music, etc. When you find yourself in that particular situation, you simply put your hearing aids into the program for that environment, either by using your remote, your smartphone app, or pushing a button on the hearing aid.

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Many people wonder, why might a “music” program be necessary for hearing aids? The main purpose of hearing aids is to help people understand human speech better. When people are talking in normal conversation, their voices are usually in a volume range of 30 to 85 decibels. But that isn’t the whole story. Human speech sounds are also mainly in the frequency range of 250 to 6000 Hz. This means that in “normal” hearing aid settings, which are optimized for typical spoken conversation, the range or frequency and volume is smaller than what is used for music. A piano, for example, has about a 40 percent bigger range in frequencies than the female voice.

Music and conversation are very different 

In general, music has a much wider range of volume and frequency. This means that music often includes important sounds that are softer or louder than conversation sounds, and also sounds that are lower-pitched and higher-pitched that those sounds commonly found in speech. This can present a challenge for hearing aids.

If you’re having trouble with listening to music with your hearing aids, don’t hesitate to speak to your hearing care practitioner about this. He or she may be able to design a different program that can make a big difference.

Specialized programs to optimize music sound quality typically have more amplification in the lower frequencies, which can be very important for music enjoyment. If you’re having trouble with listening to music with your hearing aids, don’t hesitate to speak to your hearing care practitioner about this. He or she may be able to design a different program that can make a big difference.

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Also, keep in mind – all music situations aren’t created equally, either. If you play in a symphony, your music setting needs will be different than someone who wants to listen to music at home in an otherwise quiet environment. If might take some effort to customize music program settings to work best for you, but most people find that it’s worth doing.

If don’t have a music setting, and your hearing aid is distorting music from a music player, radio, or TV, you might experiment with turning down the music volume, Toronto audiologist Marshall Chasin, who specializes in working with musicians, told me. If you have a volume control on your hearing aid, you could turn that up if needed, he says. If you have a mild or moderate hearing loss, you might simply take off the hearing aid.  

Musicians: Talk to your audiologist about problems

Musicians may sometimes miss hearing loss when they listen to music because they are recreating it in their heads, much as Beethoven did when he was deaf, observed audiologist Ruth Reisman. “It is like a sixth sense,” she says. 

If you are a performer—singing or playing a musical instrument—hearing aids can alter the sound of your own voice or instrument, an effect called “occlusion.” Sometimes wearing one aid rather than two can solve the problem. You might need a more open ear piece or a hollow earmold, or it might help to lower the low frequency amplifications, Reisman says. 

Tell your hearing care provider if you have tinnitus, for tips on how to manage it.

The site Grand Piano Passion has a wealth of information for musicians with hearing loss, such as optimizing your hearing aids for music and how to personalize the music setting on your hearing aids

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Other assistive listening devices can help

This is where you’ll get the most help now, Chasin says. Note that your hearing care provider may make it possible for you to test out assistive listening devices before making a commitment.

Headphones

A woman listens to music.
A good pair of noise-cancelling headphones
worn over hearing aids can make it easier
to listen to music at home. 

Amplified headphones can deliver signals more loudly than standard headphones do. A separate headphone “equalizer” allows you to boost low, mid and high frequencies to suit yourself.  

Noise-cancelling headphones may be worn over your hearing aids, so you don’t need to turn the music as high.

Loops for live music or cinema

A hearing loop provides a wireless signal you can pick up on the ‘T’ (Telecoil) setting when using mobile phones or when you’re inside a cinema, church, concert hall or theater.

Remote mic

You can pick up live sound in a room by putting the microphone closer to the source.

Streamers

These small devices ferry sound from other audio equipment wirelessly into your hearing aid. Ask your hearing care practitioner to enable a streaming program on your hearing aids. My friend Roger Draper, who has profound hearing loss, listens to musicals or operas with English librettos using a device that broadcasts sound directly from his TV to his hearing aids.

“The music doesn’t sound as good as it would if I were listening through headphones, but I can make out the words, which is otherwise an impossible challenge,” he says.

Get help with treatment

A truested hearing care provider is key to helping you find the right hearing aid, with the right programming, to optimize your listening experience for speech and music. Find a hearing specialist near you with our directory of providers. 

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