Dimensions of Hearing

If you were to blindfold me (and for god’s sake, don’t EVER do that or I will stab you in the goddamn kidney) and stick my hearing aid in my ear, this is what I’d hear:

Speech is indecipherable. I can recognize a few words, basic ones like hello, howareya, fine, bye, the numbers zero through twelve, baseball, and hotdog. But the string of words that comes out of your mouth is complete babble to me without the visual cues lipreading gives me. Just a voice going “whaa whaa whaa” like a damn Charlie Brown cartoon.

I can recognize basic household sounds that have been drilled into me as a kid by my family: a knock or door bell, the telephone, a radio or television playing. However, recorded sounds all sound like noise; speech noise or music noise–a loud confusing pile of thousands upon thousands of sounds, none of which seem to belong together. What really makes recorded sounds impossible for me is a sense that it is “dirty”–corrupted, polluted, ruined. There’s a sort of crackle, or white noise in the background, like tinnitus or static–part of and yet also not part of what I’m hearing.

If I am able to pick out a familiar sound, I am unlikely to name it for what it is except perhaps “(wo)man singing/speaking” or “drums pounding”. I simply can’t hear how all the sounds belong together (I don’t like barbershop quartets, they simply sound discordant to me, and the wailings of the tenor overwhelm the voices of the other three, grating on my nerves). I certainly can’t tell a guitar from a piano or a trumpet from a violin. The louder or more complicated the music the less I am able to distinguish any element of it from another, until it is quite literally a pulsing, crackling, whaawhaawhaa blob of noise.

But LIVE music is another story entirely. Live music actually sounds like real sounds. No dirty crackle or hum or blurring of the edges. However, the more complex and bigger the music is the less I am able to connect to the melody and the emotion of the piece, but at least a string instrument sounds distinct from a woodwind or a brass, though I can’t tell one brass from another, or woodwind, or string. But drums are perfectly clear and recognizable. When it comes to live music, I definitely prefer to listen to simple, clean compositions with a strong, clear singer.

Moving on from speech and music, in a quiet room, I may hear environmental machines running. Water tumbling out of a tap. A cat meowing. I will not recognize the machines or the running water, but I might hear it as white noise I will instinctively ignore. The cat I will talk to and pet. Loud noises are painful, especially high pitched ones, for it is in the higher frequencies that my pain thresold is low. I hate the sound of flutes or whistles (lord, do I hate them). Outside, I can hear the cars, lawnmowers and the windblowing. I will recognize only the wind. I can hear thunder rolling on the clouds, but I won’t know it is thunder unless it is a thunderclap. Nothing sounds like a thunderclap.

Now, if you were to take off my hearing aid, the only thing I could hear would be the drums and the thunderclap. I have no problems recognizing those sounds! Its good to be able to hear nothing when the mood strikes me. White noise, wind, machines, meowing cats, radio, music, and babbling humanity–honestly, how can anyone live with it every hour of every day?

Now someone get the blindfold off me before I get stabby.

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12 thoughts on “Dimensions of Hearing

  1. How fascinating. And the way you describe noise you have me wondering how, indeed we can stand it. There are times I would love to be able to turn it off.

  2. My hearing is pretty good (though apparently I am oblivious to anything my wife says to me). I hate flutes and whistles as well.

    I just saw an interesting article about technology that had been installed in airports which transmits the public address systems (you know, the “Mr. Jones, white courtesy telephone, please) announcements directly to hearing aids. Now I don’t know if one needs a specific hearing device or if it works on all models, but interesting none the less. But then again, how much of our lives do we spend in airports?!

  3. This provides a very interesting glimpse into a life the average person has no concept of.

    And nobody likes barbershop quartets.

  4. Wow. This is the best description I have ever encountered of what deafness feels like. It’s like a Rosetta Stone to another dimension, and it also makes me realize how much I take for granted as a hearing person – and how really obscene it is for me to get angry at other people’s noises when I am so incredibly lucky to even hear them. Thank you for sharing this part of your world with us, Rachel. It humbles me that it must have been so difficult for you to develop your truly excellent communication skills.

  5. I really enjoyed reading that, Rachel. You know, even though my profession relies on hearing, I’ve always thought if I had to choose between blondness or deafness, I’d taken deafness in a heartbeat.
    And as for being constantly assaulted by noise, that’s really true for me – I want quiet when I’m home and don’t generally have a TV or music going. Maybe it’s because I have to listen to people talk all day!

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