Day 6

Music to their ears: A concert for the hard of hearing

Listening to a live concert via hearing aids can be a lousy experience. But at McMaster's LIVELab theatre, they're working to improve it.
Singer Laila Biali performs on the LIVELab stage at McMaster University. (LIVELab/McMaster University)

This weekend researchers at McMaster University's LIVELab are hosting two concerts — both aimed at audiences who are hard of hearing.

Though people who are losing their hearing can listen to music with the use of a hearing aid, at the moment, the devices don't provide an ideal listening experience.

What I hear when I listen to live music through my hearing aids is kind of a dull, muted version of what I remember music used to sound like.- Peter MacDonald, musician and composer

With help from members of the Hamilton community, LIVELab's researchers are hoping to enhance their live listening experience by experimenting with sound quality at this weekend's classical music concerts.

Peter MacDonald is a lifelong music lover living in Hamilton. He's also a musician who is gradually losing his hearing. He'll be at the concert on Saturday.

Dan Bosnyak and Laurel Trainor watch musicians perform at the LIVELab research theatre. (LIVELab)

MacDonald says that listening to live music is no longer as enjoyable as it once was.

"What I hear when I listen to live music through my hearing aids is kind of a dull, muted version of what I remember music used to sound like," MacDonald explains. "It's disappointing. It's like looking through glasses that are fuzzy."

MacDonald says he can hear the music, but what he can't hear is the full range of tones and notes.

"It's like suddenly going colour blind and you can see the different shapes and images, but you can't catch the vibrance. You can't catch the warmth or the dynamics of the music as it was intended," he says.

The LIVELab theatre at McMaster University. (LIVELab/McMaster University)


How the McMaster research team hopes to help

"We know that listening to music together with other people, in a live environment, is way more emotionally impactful than listening to it at home, by yourself," says McMaster's Dan Bosnyak.

Bosnyak is the technical director at LIVELab (an acronym for Large Interactive Virtual Environment Laboratory) and one of the researchers working on improving live concert sound for the hard of hearing.

Hearing aids are set up mostly to give people the ability to better understand speech.- Dan Bosnyak, LIVELab's technical director

"People who have hearing problems are being, sort of, shut out of that part of their lives that they've always enjoyed, up until the point that they started to lose their hearing," Bosnyak says.

"Hearing aids are set up mostly to give people the ability to better understand speech."

Most hearing aids aren't well-equipped to process the finer frequencies within music — or if they are, Bosnyak says, they haven't been well-tested in a live concert setting.

KEMAR is the audio research mannequin used at McMaster University's LIVELab. (LIVELab)

The LIVELab theatre includes 72 speakers and 20 microphones, which together allow for sound technicians to quickly adjust sound levels when needed.

Technicians will be monitoring the sound of the concert through an acoustical mannequin sitting in the audience, which mimics the human hearing system.

"We take the output from the mannequin and we pipe it through some algorithms to simulate hearing loss and we give that to a sound engineer," Bosnyak explains.

"[The engineer] then tries to create an enhanced feed that then goes back to the mannequin, and through its hearing aids … and gives the best possible sound we can give to the person in the audience who is wearing hearing aids."

Based on the sound coming through the mannequin's hearing aids, engineers will quickly adjust the sound to optimize listening for everyone wearing hearing aids.

Bosnyak notes that this is just a preliminary step in improving live music for wearers of hearing aids, but he hopes that eventually the technology can be applied to more types of music and used more widely.

For MacDonald, the efforts at sound optimization are a reason to be optimistic.

"The work they're doing at McMaster gives me a little bit of hope that there might be something they can do for me, to help me regain the pleasure and the joy that I used to experience listening to music," he says.

For those in the Hamilton area, the Hamilton branch of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association is hosting another live music event on November 30th.

To hear Peter MacDonald and Dan Bosnyak, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.