When Denise Brown lost her hearing suddenly in 2008, one of the things she missed most was being able to enjoy music. The Hattiesburg, Miss., resident, who had been involved in music since she was 14, learned to hear again after receiving two cochlear implants.
The implants allowed her to resume playing in the bell choir and sing favorite church hymns. And now, thanks in part to a new app called Bring Back the Beat, the 67-year-old wife, mom and grandmother is further refining her musical skills.
Reconnecting to music
Bring Back the Beat helps cochlear implant recipients reconnect to music using a series of focused attention and listening practice games. It was created by Cochlear, a company that makes cochlear implants, and launched at their eighth Cochlear Celebration, a gathering of hearing implant recipients held this February in Nashville.
The app developers decided to engage users with games because they wanted to make learning fun, said Jim May, senior product manager of rehabilitation at Cochlear.
“Too many rehab activities feel like homework,” he said. “We wanted to create an experience that people can’t wait to get back to. Second, and just as important, when you play any kind of game, you naturally focus on the task at hand since this is how you earn points and get to the next level. In Bring Back the Beat this means the users really listen carefully to the music. Just by playing the game, your brain is adapting. With focused attention to music, users find their enjoyment of music gradually increases.”
The free app, available for both iOS and Android, engages users in five worlds where a series of games helps focus their attention on music in different ways:
- Quizzical challenges users to identify different notes and instruments.
- Euphony engages users to play simple notes and instruments, building to more complex melodies
- Octavia games are designed to help users practice pitch perception
- Concerteer challenges users to plan and stage their own concert
- Repertoire allows users to expand their musical boundaries by linking the app to Spotify.
Although reconnecting people to music is the primary goal, May said using the app may have additional benefits.
“We’ll be paying close attention to people’s feedback to see what benefits they describe,” he said. “For example, we may find that people’s ability to perceive pitch improves. Of course pitch contributes to the enjoyment of music since it is key to the melody of a tune and the sound of instruments. But improved pitch perception may help in other ways, too. People may find that they’re better at recognizing voices and hearing the intonation and emotion of people’s voices. These are all important parts of the way we listen and communicate.”
Denise’s hearing loss journey
After experiencing a “very bad upper respiratory infection” in 1987, Denise developed tinnitus and was diagnosed with single-sided hearing loss in her right ear. By 1990, her hearing loss was severe enough to warrant wearing a hearing aid. One Wednesday evening in 2008 she went to sleep and woke up the next morning with no hearing on her left side. A year later, she received her first cochlear implant, followed by a second one in 2017.
For someone who enjoyed singing in the church, school and college choirs as well as listening to classical music at home and work, losing the ability to enjoy music was difficult to accept.
“I was still very successful with music with single-sided hearing (from my 30s), so the idea of losing any access to music was just not anything I could possibly imagine,” she explained. “Music is also an integral part of yoga practice, which is something else I lost access to initially when I became profoundly deaf in 2008. Music and yoga were the things that reduced my stress and helped me keep balance in my life. So overnight I lost access to all of these things, not just the communication aspects of speech.”
Even after receiving two cochlear implants, Denise had trouble matching pitch to tone and keeping time with the beat.
“The very first challenge post-implant was tempo,” she said. “By the time my brain processed a sound I was usually way behind the beat. Also for familiar songs (church hymns) I end up either way behind or way ahead.”
About the app, she said “being able to see the tempo in this feature (Euphony) is really helpful in relearning tempo. With practice, this has been improving over time for me, but it will only get better now that I have a tool for regular practice.”
‘I never expected to get much music back’
Denise encourages others with severe hearing loss to explore their options. Today, after being profoundly deaf in her left ear for 10 years and unable to understand speech in her right ear for 20 years, she is enjoying all of her favorite sounds.
While cochlear implants do not cure hearing loss or restore hearing, they do provide an opportunity for the severely hard of hearing or deaf to perceive sound by bypassing the damaged inner ear. See our in-depth guide to cochlear implants.
“I talk with my grandchildren, help them with piano, enjoy nature, listen to my cats purr, talk with my children on the phone now. All things that were not possible for me 10 years ago,” says Denise, who also credits her husband of 42 years for cheering her on. “I never expected to get much music back but that is now happening. It is a journey and it is scary—but so worth it.”