Monday, August 16, 2010

Tapping My Feet to the Music

(What I don't need anymore, hopefully)

Mozart. Brahms. Wagner. Andrew Bird. The Eagles. Imogen Heap. Dave Matthews. Norah Jones. Jesse McCartney. Carrie Underwood. Okay, okay!

For a deaf person, music is a veritable Pandora’s box. It’s an unknown realm filled with so many impressions and styles, so much history, as to make the prospect of listening rather daunting. Before the CI, I already had a sense of speech and environmental sounds, based on years of therapy, observations and experiences in the hearing world, and the books I’d read. But music? That was largely uncharted territory. Only recently have I started to open the box, to glimpse whatever lies inside.

As a result, music is on its way to engraining itself in my life. “Wow, Rachel likes music now!” my little sister said the first day I stole her iPod; this exclamation, in various forms, has been echoed by several friends since. But really, now that I’ve got the tools to listen, what’s not to like? Even if I didn’t know what to expect, my musical journey has already changed my personal landscape in striking ways. I no longer view iPods as foreign objects, although navigating iTunes is still a novelty. While driving, I like the radio loud: beware to whoever gets into the car after me! Playing CDs at work has become routine, making the time go faster and more pleasantly. I write better sometimes while plugged into music, when not distracted by an odd beat or melody. (And yes, I still remember asking my hearing friends in bewilderment how they could think with all that noise.) I’ve found, to my amusement, that I can multitask and hold a conversation (via lipreading) even while my head is pulsing full of some rock song. A few weeks ago I sat down at the piano for the first time in years, plinking around trying to hear the differences between notes, chords, and octaves. Recently I’ve progressed to trying to play a few songs; those long-ago piano and guitar lessons have to be good for something. And just yesterday I discovered the rewards of plugging into an iPod while working out. It really is easier to roll through those push-ups with a strong beat pulsing through your head!

Yet I keep realizing how much I don’t know. I keep asking questions that must seem na├»ve and somewhat dumb (“If they’re playing the exact same note, how do you tell the difference between a saxophone and a flute, or a violin and a cello?”). Music truly is like a different language.

Still, my baby ear is developing. I keep wondering how hearing people first encounter and understand music, because for me it’s been a bottom-up journey, from the fundamental beat all the way up to the lyrics. The first time I heard any type of song, post-CI, was in the car with the radio on. Even though the quality of that sound was awful, I still remember my astonishment at realizing that I was hearing a definite, strong, rhythmic beat. Unless the volume was turned up to deafening levels, I had never experienced this before – and, when I had, I’d found it unpleasantly overwhelming. For several days after turn-on, the beat was all I could hear in any given song, before I started hearing the melody as a strange, staticky, grating noise. No thank you! Since then, though, practice and several remappings have helped my brain make more sense of what I’m hearing. The sound quality is much improved, and the assortment of notes fits together into a more dynamic picture. Lyrics are slowly coming through, depending on the song. When I can make them out, though, the singer sometimes sounds like he/she has laryngitis. Hopefully this will go away!

As far as pure instrumentation goes, I often can't distinguish between the different instrumental and vocal parts of a song, which can make some music (especially pop) sound slightly muddled and chaotic. At a friend’s recommendation, I’ve spent more time listening to recordings of single instruments, seeing if I can follow the direction of one melody. Classical is especially good in this regard, though the string instruments can sometimes sound screechy. I’m hoping to get my hands on some a cappella recordings soon. Rock is fine, though it sometimes makes me feel like I’m about to blow a fuse. I haven’t listened to much jazz or country or heavy metal. No rap yet, either. Really, I don’t know what I’m listening to half the time!

An interesting step in my musical experiments – last night, my cochlear implant and I took a trip to the Santa Fe Opera. Greeted by splatters of rain, billowing clouds, and spectacular views of the sunset over the Sangre de Cristo mountains, we took our seats in the sweeping theater, open to the night air outside. My father had only come with us after some persuasion, complaining that it “wasn’t his cup of tea” to listen to “people screaming pretending that they’re singing.” Admittedly this was what I had once thought of opera, my experience being limited to one elementary-school field trip to a small performance in an Albuquerque theater, in which I watched the singers’ faces turning red, didn’t hear much, and decided that the whole concept was rather silly. Last night’s outing ended up being more fun! The night’s performance was an apprentice’s showcase featuring different scenes from various operas, and although I wished I could have witnessed an entire opera instead of these fragments, it was an excellent introduction to all that opera can be. A few off-the-cuff observations:

1. Many of the apprentices didn’t have the range of voice that I expected, but the few good arias over the course of the night gave me a weird sensation, as chills rippled down my arms and my insides stirred, trying to cling to the sound. I haven’t experienced that feeling yet with other types of music.

2. Several times, I squinted down trying to lipread the singers when I realized they weren’t singing in English. Whoops. That said, I seem to enjoy opera better in other languages; the singing sounds better and more poignant.

3. My CI battery started to die near the end – nooo! I thought, wanting to grasp the sound and pour it, amplified, into my head. Strange how subject I’ve become to a gadget. Next time I’ll bring a spare.

4. The electronics title system (which the opera house had, on each seat, instead of supertitles) is excellent! Why don’t live plays, speeches and events, movie theaters, etc., all have that?

5. Opera, it occurred to me, seems to be driven by raw emotion, by an effort to make those sentiments concrete. Which, it also occurred to me, is probably true of most music, isn't it?

6. Who ever knew you could make an opera scene extolling ice cream? I thought it was all about doomed, star-crossed lovers. Which we saw, too.

My musical discoveries, ongoing as they may be, have consistently raised the question: what defines good music? I honestly don’t know. I’m a big reader, and I know what defines good writing. I have some background in art, and am able to evaluate a visual piece of work. But music? Hmmm. I keep listening, puzzling, trying to pinpoint exactly what it is. I like it, and I want to hear more, but I don’t know exactly why. Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had since the CI have been about music; I’ve seen sides of my hearing friends that I haven’t seen before. A few of those friends have tried to articulate to me why they like to listen to the music they do. Their descriptions make sense intellectually, even if I still have to discover those ideas personally and emotionally. So, for the readers of this blog, I extend the question to you: what makes a piece of music good? And why?


  1. I found this article interesting and (somewhat) related. It is about music preference in a baby chimp for consonent music over dissonent music (something they thought was uniquely human). Anyway, I clearly missed my calling (should have been a primatologist)...

  2. I think experience dictates our preferences. Education can also influence likes & dislikes. Small children can be comforted by repetative, simple tunes or thrown into fits of giggles by silly lyrics. Adolescence seems to favor strong, fast beats, music fills emotional needs at that time that is hard to understand in any other way. Even now, while I prefer quieter, more classical type music, an old Beatles or Chicago song can make me relive a much younger time of my life.
    Good luck on your journey and thank you for sharing