Lost in Transmission: hearing and silence
I can’t imagine my life without music. As a “child of the 60s”, the poetry and power of Dylan’s early music helped shape my thinking and sharpen my social conscience in a unique way. Dylan’s music changed of course, but it continued to enrich my life over the years and today, as Bob and I both grow older, his songs still speak to me, and for me, of life’s ironies, challenges and joys.
Where does music’s remarkable power lie? What is it about Mozart that touches our deepest emotions and - for me at any rate - gives some meaning to the concept of the soul? Why is it that just the first line of Rod Stewart’s Maggie May can transport me in an instant to the sights, sounds, smells, and the excitement, of my first heady days in London? I have no answers but I do know that I wouldn’t want to miss the experience.
Through my work at Deafness Research UK, I am acutely conscious of just how fortunate I am – that these gifts of sound and of music are something denied to so many people.
In the UK alone no fewer than nine million people, one in seven of us, have some form of hearing problem - from babies who are born deaf, those adults suddenly and frighteningly plunged into silence for no obvious reason, to the many millions of people who lose their hearing insidiously and slowly, hardly noticing at first that they are missing the birdsong or the all important nuances in a conversation. I recall vividly the first time I was aware that this was happening to me. I had succeeded in meeting a much sought after contact in a crowded business meeting only to find that I could catch only every third or fourth word of what was being said. I tried to cover the gaps in my understanding with murmured acknowledgements, the occasional nod or shake of the head, never really knowing if my reaction was appropriate or not. I can recall the discomfort and embarrassment to this day. Now I have become accustomed to attending meetings where, because of the acoustics or the numbers around the table, it’s all too easy to miss vital information. These days I have no hesitation is asking people to speak up but I always wonder how many others are keeping quiet and trying to “get by”.
For many older people with more significant hearing loss, the frustration and stress of coping leaves them tired, isolated and cut off from family and friends, often just when they need them most – little wonder that deafness and depression so often go hand in hand.
Given this huge social cost, why is deafness so little understood, starved of public attention and much needed funding? Why is our hearing considered to be so less important than our sight? Is it because deafness is hidden? Is it simply thought of as an inevitable result of getting older? I suspect that both have contributed to the neglect of one of our most important senses but now I like to think that, as Dylan would say, “the times they are a changing”. And, as is so often the case, technology is driving the change.
Thanks to new technology, noise has become a lifestyle choice for us all – particularly for the young. With the aid of the 120 watt quadraphonic speaker system, we can enjoy excellent sound quality at volumes that would have been unthinkable a few years ago; MP3 players allow us to listen to music for longer with the sound delivered directly, and potentially damagingly, into our ears. Paradoxically, it’s these developments that give me hope. After all, in this consumer age we’ve all grown accustomed to getting what we want haven’t we - and this generation will certainly expect to indulge their love of music without suffering the consequences. I know they will start to demand answers to hearing loss and I believe that, ultimately, those answers will be forthcoming.
The development of cochlear implants already means that many people who would otherwise be totally deaf are now able to hear remarkably well. These “bionic ears” seemed like a miracle when they were first developed twenty years ago but today’s scientists have turned their attention to even more radical solutions, using stem cells and other innovative techniques to find medical and genetic ways of preventing deafness or restoring hearing. The challenge isn’t to be underestimated but the main barrier to progress is lack of investment and solutions could come from some unexpected directions - why is it for example that birds, newts and even fruit flies can replace their damaged or lost hearing cells but we can’t? It’s the answers to questions like these that could hold the clues to future cures. The ear is as complex and mysterious as music itself, but at Deafness Research UK we are confident that science will ultimately unravel its mysteries so that, in future, no-one need be without the sound that most of us take for granted.
This article was first published on the Hear Here! website (www.hearhere.org.uk) in November 2008. Hear Here! is a collaboration between Deafness Research UK, the Royal Philharmonic Society, Classic FM and a number of other prestigious partners. It involves live events, broadcasts and interactive multimedia events throughout the year – all designed to get people thinking about the experience of listening to classical music.