Sunday February 07, 2016

What it's like to hear through a broken eardrum

Sound artist and researcher Wesley Goatley says that hearing through a punctured eardrum is like the sound of a broken drum skin. He created Life in Mono to recreate the effect, so anyone could hear it.

Sound artist and researcher Wesley Goatley says that hearing through a punctured eardrum is like the sound of a broken drum skin. He created Life in Mono to recreate the effect, so anyone could hear it. (Flickr cc/Travis Isaacs)

Listen 8:01

Imagine pressure, slowly, painfully, building inside your ear, until... POP!

...a burst eardrum.

It's not nice, but it's not uncommon, and the results can be pretty significant hearing loss, at least in the short term.

For Wesley Goatley, a sound artist and researcher in Brighton, England, a burst eardrum had a major impact on his work. A lot of Wesley's art has to do with conveying data (especially from digital sources) through sound.


During a bad cold over Christmas, Wesley got an ear infection in his left ear, causing a rupture. Although it meant that Wesley had to quickly spin on the spot to hear anything in stereo, it also allowed him to hear sound in ways he hadn't before.

Using his good ear as a reference, he found that the sound heard through the puncture was similar to an effect called downsampling. Think of the crunchy sound of a poor quality MP3. He also noted a significant drop it volume, and a change in tone... "like a drum skin with a hole in it, or a drum skin that has been loosened off."

Using his experience and his knowledge of sound production, Wesley created a program called "Life in Mono", which aims to simulate the experience of hearing with a punctured eardrum.

With Life in Mono, Wesley hopes that it will allow people to hear in a new way, but also help people to empathize with people who have experienced hearing loss.