Nova Scotia·Q&A

Halifax artist hopes new sound project will help others with tinnitus

Seth Smith, a Halifax artist, musician and filmmaker, has created a sound art album that he hopes will help people with their tinnitus.

Seth Smith's album, Constant Interruption, aims to mask the constant ringing of tinnitus

Seth Smith, a Halifax artist, musician and filmmaker, has created a sound art album that he hopes will help people with their tinnitus. (Jessie Wells)

When Halifax artist Seth Smith suffered an injury that left him with a constant ringing in his right ear, he was worried he would no longer be able to produce music.

Smith lives with tinnitus, which is the perception of hearing ringing or other noises in your ear when there's no external source.

"In the beginning, I was running away from the sound," Smith said. "It's scary to me."

But then he started embracing the sound of his tinnitus, and realized he could use it in his music.

Smith's album, Constant Interruption, is available on Bandcamp. (Submitted by Seth Smith)

"As I started working on this project and experimenting with these sounds, timbres, vibrations and materials, I started wanting to incorporate it in the music and recreate it in a sense."

Now he's created a sound project that temporarily eases his own chronic tinnitus, and he hopes it will do the same for others.

Smith released the project, Constant Interruption, under the name FunDog on BandCamp.

He spoke with Information Morning Nova Scotia host Portia Clark about the project on Tuesday.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This project started with a personal health crisis. Tell us a bit about that. 

Two years ago, I had an injury in my right ear and it instantly gave me tinnitus. For those who don't know, it's the perception of hearing ringing or other noises in your ear when there's no external source. It's generally associated with hearing loss. 

It's normal for people to hear it after a concert or something, but for some people, the condition is permanent and at an uncomfortable volume. It can make it hard to concentrate, sleep and can cause anxiety and depression. That's kind of the stuff I was facing when I first had this and I was looking for ways to deal with it. There's no cure for it aside from counselling to change your mental outlook of the problem. 

LISTEN | Hear the full conversation: 
This year, filmmaker and musician Seth Smith focussed his efforts on a sound therapy project, hoping to bring temporary ease to those who struggle with chronic tinnitus. Hear how Seth made this work using custom-made acoustic instruments and sound sculptures installed in the woods.

Some people turn to sound therapies and that's something I was interested in, coming from a music background. I became interested in noise masking and that's like atmospheric sounds, typically that will hide tinnitus by matching its frequency and it can be a useful tool temporarily in times of needed concentration and clarity. That was kind of the kickoff for thinking about creating a project that could help with that.

And so in helping yourself, hopefully helping others with the same condition, is that where you were going with this?

Yeah. Everyone experiences different degrees. There are many people that have it much louder than I do. For some, it sounds like a smoke detector, others it will sound like a rumble or a train and pulsatile tinnitus sounds like a heartbeat. So yeah, I tried to make the record a bit broad within the frequency spectrum, but also inspired by my own tinnitus.

In the beginning, I was running away from the sound. It's scary to me, but as I started working on this project and experimenting with these sounds, timbres, vibrations and materials, I started wanting to incorporate it in the music and recreate it in a sense. 

And you made the instruments yourself and set them up in the woods near your house? 

My backyard kind of borders the forest and it's mainly metal stuff like sheet metal, coil springs, music wire, drum heads, brass rods, things like that and they're all installed and fastened on trees and boulders and natural elements. 

The forest has a lot of natural sounds that are noise masking, like rivers, rain and winds or trees and it was a very positive, relaxing space to make this in. 

WATCH | Seth Smith's sound project: 

How have people reacted to hearing the sounds? 

Surprisingly, it's been good. … I've got a lot of cool feedback. I'm sure the record can be quite abrasive for certain people, and some people would not consider it music like I do. But yeah, if you can get past the fact that it's fairly experimental and you have to be somewhat open minded.

The people I know who have tinnitus who have listened to it have found benefits, like it brings their ringing temporarily down in their ears, which is definitely half of the goal. 

How did you find the sounds that worked for you or the frequency that was pleasing or masking?

When this thing first happened to me, and especially with the hearing loss, I thought I probably wouldn't be able to do music or produce music as far as mixing goes, but I slowly started playing around with it, yet I noticed certain sounds I wanted to avoid. 

Certain timbres and frequency ranges, which were helpful and I did like it, and it kind of gave me a positive feeling. It was just a lot of experimentation, and that's something I always like to do, so it worked out.

So it brought you back to making music, Seth, has it had that much of an impact on you?

It definitely did. This was a little more planned out, but I think what brought me back was doing scores for my movies. Tinnitus, the sound of it is particularly, like, it works for horror movies. 

Emotion is part of it, too, and I think working in film, it's a very emotional musical expression and the music for films is something I just needed to do to finish my films and that kind of helped me get back in the music for sure. 

LISTEN | Experiencing tinnitus and managing symptoms: 
Tinnitus has been called a persistent "ringing in the ears," but it's a lot more varied and complex than that would suggest. We speak with audiologist Dekota Clayton about how the condition manifests and what people can do to mitigate tinnitus.

You're asking on Bandcamp for people to pay what they can and donating half the proceeds to the Hearing Foundation of Canada. Why is that? 

There's a lot of people with this issue. Sometimes I think it doesn't get taken that seriously and a lot of people don't know about it. There's a lot of people who have this and they'll just kind of scroll through the Reddit communities, which can be a bit dark but there's a lot of good stuff happening. 

There's a lot of new treatments ahead and the Hearing Foundation of Canada has just partnered with the Canadian Hearing Society and they're working to advance research and innovation in the field, which is good. 

I think, for people that have this, there's definitely hope ahead and I would encourage people to donate even if they don't want to listen to this.

With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia

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