My Cochlear Implant, My Brain, and Music

I did not grow up in a musical family. The HiFi was never used. My father listened to ballgames on the transistor radio, not music. I listened to The Monkees. I saw music on television variety shows. That was about it. By my early teen years, that age when you start to develop your own musical taste, I was developing a hearing loss. At first it was slight. But every year I’d lose another 3 decibels or so. When my friends were discovering Bruce Springsteen, I was listening to country music. It wasn’t a passion – it was simply what was played at the horse barns where I spent my time. It was easy to hear and understand. Over time I stopped listening to music altogether. I couldn’t. My hearing loss had become severe. Without hearing aids I was essentially deaf. With aids, I could hear, but sounds were muffled, distorted and incomplete.

I’m now in my early fifties. I’d say that I’ve missed about thirty-five years of popular music. Music is not something that I mourn not having. I’ve filled my life and my head with other satisfying things. But a year ago I had a cochlear implant embedded into my skull. This astounding technology has enabled me to hear again. I’m having conversations. I’m hearing cashiers say, “have a nice day”, I’m even able to eavesdrop! All of this new hearing doesn’t just happen. One has to work at it. My hearing no longer goes through the normal pathways. Sounds are picked up by a microphone, and they are turned into electrical codes that are tapped directly onto the auditory nerve. The brain has to learn to make sense of it. Over the course of this last, miraculous, year, my brain has been making sense of more and more. It continues to let in new sounds, and what I hear is fuller, more complete, and more resonant. I wondered what my brain would make of music. Lucky for me, television is rife with reality music shows. I started to watch. And listen.

I have a special device on my television that sends the sound directly to my cochlear implant, so the sound is very clear. I also use closed captions, because despite the volume and clarity of the sound, I can’t always make out the words of the singers. This past summer I listened to a karaoke contest. Recently, I was glued to the set every Monday night for the a cappella contest, “The Sing-Off.” Songs that were touted as “the biggest hit of the 80s” were totally new to me. What was also new to me was how complex the music was. I was hearing the full range of notes, and the bands backing up the singers sounded musical, not the jumbled cacophony that I’d been hearing for most of my life. The more I listened, the more my brain worked and the better it sounded.

I’m one of those people who remembers her dreams. My dreams are complex works of fiction. I can remember dreams from my childhood, dreams from college, dreams from when I was first married. There has never been music in them. But two nights ago I had a dream with a soundtrack. It had a full chorus and an orchestra. It was lush, complex and stirring. I woke up to beautiful music in my head.


  1. Wow! That is really cool! Also….most of us dont reliably hear all the words to songs ;-). drilling singers into clear articulation is not often done. I was amazed when our 8th grade did Pirates of Penzance, and the Major General’s patter song (fast, with zillions of words, famously hard to do well) was perfectly articulated and easy to understand. Turns out the 13 yr old actor’s German speaking (bilingual) mom was adamant about articulation and drilled and drilled him. But otherwise? I read up on plays in advance, to help with that sort of thing, it’s easier to understand if you know it in advance!

    Has your hearing improved to the point of being able to enjoy classical music in the car? I love the no commercial Boston stations!

  2. After an operation to remove a brain tumor, my late husband lost his hearing in one ear and his sight in one eye. He found the hearing loss much harder to adjust to than the sight loss.
    Diminished hearing is also very taxing on relationships, especially in families.
    Wonderful, that you’ve regained your hearing and music!

    • Hearing loss is an invisible disability that is exhausting, depressing and isolating. Few audiologists mention the emotional issues, or where to get help, to their clients. Wearing hearing aids doesn’t “fix” hearing the way glasses do for eyes. I’m sorry your late husband and his family had to deal with all of the repercussions of hearing loss.

  3. I am so happy for you and your new ears!! What a wonderful Christmas this will be :)

  4. What a wonderful miracle! I experienced a similar miracle of the visual type. I had lost my sight in my right eye due to detached retina. My left eye also had a retina detachment followed by glaucoma and finally a dense cataract. For ten years no doctor would touch my cataract for fear of causing a retina detachment. Finally, I was legally blind in my left eye and one doctor gave me hope of a 99% success rate for surgery, in his hands.It was successful, and the first time I could see faces clearly, true colors and a night sky filled with stars was a miraculous experience.Isn’t life wonderful?! I wish everyone could be blessed with a miraculous cure from their ailments. It can change your life.

  5. Smiling…just a big smiling grin for you this morning. How wonderful. Thank you for sharing that Terry. A lovely story and such amazing feedback comments too! A great way to start my Friday.

  6. Terry, you made me cry tears of joy! I had the pleasure of living with 3 deaf roommates my first year in college! You brought me back to when my friend Erica heard the refrigerator for the first time :) I am so happy for you. It must be an amazing experience. I am glad you are sharing it with us.

    • There are so many everyday sounds that hearing people tune out. I heard the crackle of an empty water bottle the other day and didn’t know what it was until I looked around the doctor’s waiting room and saw it.

  7. I’m so glad to know that Boston still has classical music. When I was there, it was a commercial station but at least it was classical music. I’m so lucky here in central NC to have a no-commercial classical-24-hours-a-day music station. They broadcast on the internet so they have listeners around the world. As your bionic ear improves, you can listen on your computer. Try it! You’ll like it!! And all you other devotees of the hencam! :-)

  8. AMAZING!!! I’m thrilled for you.
    What an adventure you are living. Those of us in the hearing world take all the sounds around us for granted. Enjoy the ride.
    Be sure to share additional stories of newly found sounds. For me it makes me appreciate what I have and for that I say Thank You.

  9. That’s so wonderful Terry! A whole new sensory world for your to enjoy :-)

    I find listening to music conjures up pictures in my mind… so much that they interrupt my ‘mind’s eye’ and it’s impossible for me to work on visualising my illustrations and linocut designs while listening to music!


  10. I am so pleased for you Terry. Funny how the brain get’s in to your dreams. This summer my son, Steve went to stay with a Spanish family for a month to improve his Spanish. He said half way through he first started thinking in Spanish then started dreaming in Spanish. He said sometimes it was half and half which he like’s to call Spanglish.

    I hope you continue to enjoy new sound’s and music. Thank you for sharing.

  11. I loved reading this. I grew up with lots of music and the joy it brings. I am so very happy for you to have found this. And your dreams? That’s truly amazing. Now go listen to some Christmas music and have a joyful day.

  12. Thank you for sharing this amazing technology and results with us- I’m so happy to hear how well it is working for you!!

  13. Thank you for sharing this experience with all of us. It is a reminder to me that during this time of the year when we are crazy busy making lists, baking, going to parties, buying gifts and celbrating the holidays that we should all slow down a little and enjoy the “gifts” we already have.

    • Kim, I actually posted part of your comment on Facebook. We’re all so busy, and you’re so right: we have tons of reasons to be grateful!

  14. Can you give me the name of the device that helps the TV sound? I’d love to get one for my Mom. (-:

  15. Thank you for sharing. Your posts brighten my day. Today was extra special. :)k —–

  16. Very happy for you.

    And- Hey, hey! As a kid I listened to the Monkees constantly. I still have the same old LPs. Have you been listening to any Monkees recently? I find that I still enjoy them! :-)

  17. I’m glad this post resonated (pun intended after I wrote this!) with so many of you. I’m not sure I’ll ever love classical music. I’ll never hear it as you do, and between my uneducated ear and what I do hear, I don’t think I’ll be listening a lot. However, I do like bits and pieces. French horns sound especially nice via my cyborg ears. Suzanne, I did get a Monkees CD and although not everything sounds great, I still love “I’m a Believer” (although don’t you think the version in Shrek was even more perfect?)
    For Brandy and others who have family members, or who themselves have hearing loss, the best place to get info is They have reams on technology. For what I use, you need to have a t-coil in your hearing aid or CI. It is called a “loop system.”

  18. Thanks for this update. I have been wondering about how you are doing. What a wonderful gift. I am so tickled for you.

    A while ago I read about a loop system that is installed in a building or concert hall that gives clearer signals to those with the right kind of hearing aids. More common in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe than here. A bit of a trek for a concert, I fear. Is this similar to yours?

    • Yes, that’s the same one. It’s great having an engineer for a husband. He looped the living room when we built the house. Still, I’d love an excuse to go to Scandinavia.

  19. I am so happy for you. Thanks for this. It was particularly touching for me, as I was a musician in my former life. I LOVE that you’re able to newly experience this wonderful part of the world. I read the whole post this morning, and again this evening, and I’m still smiling. :D Enjoy every minute!

  20. I’m so happy for you and this is a wonderful insight for me as a teacher. I teach young elementary children and have had students ranging from mild hearing loss to conditions like what you have faced. Relearning sounds is something I’ve never actually thought about until now. Wow! I’ve had students with cochlear implants and I’ve always wondered what they hear.
    One of the most enduring moments in movie history is one I’d like to ask you about. Have you ever seen Mr. Holland’s Opus in the scene where he describes how a certain composer could no longer hear his own music and so he sawed off the legs of his piano so that he could put his head on the soundboard and banged away to feel the vibrations. In the scene, you can tell how moved Richard Dreyfus becomes as he shares with his students the feeling of going deaf. I personally battle the constant thought of vision loss as the years go by and I take nothing for granted.
    Thanks for sharing this, Terry. :-)

    • David, there are so many things that a child can’t explain about hearing loss and that took me years to understand. For example, hearing is exhausting. A person with hearing loss needs breaks during the day to recharge. Children should have quiet, peaceful time built into their school days. Using assistive technology does bring the teacher’s voice into one’s ear and makes it easier to hear the instructor, but then the child can’t hear the people around her. There goes the social cues, the chatter and the little asides. Also, it doesn’t matter how nice the teacher is, he/she will sound like they are yelling at the student. You have to be especially gentle.
      My experience and success with the CI might be different than your students. My brain has memory of hearing and I learned language before deafness. I did not see that movie, but I know some people who can feel/hear sound. There’s a famous deaf drummer. But, sadly, that’s not been one of my skills.

  21. i have slowly been losing my hearing. i am hopeful that i won’t lose it all but if i do, it’s nice to know there are options like this as i can’t imagine life without music. not just people music either, but the music of the dogs and chickens and birds, the owls and crickets and tree frogs. it’s sometimes hard to remember to be thankful that we live in a world where it’s possible to hear again. very, very cool.

    • Sunday, I hope that you have a very good audiologist and are using hearing aids. The shorter the time between not hearing and getting help the better the chance for success. I’m sorry you’re losing your hearing. When the loss is slow you learn to cope, then lose some more, have to learn to cope again, etc. etc. There’s constant mourning for what was lost and fear of the future. The CI does provide hope. What I didn’t realize was that it would be so successful.

  22. I’m happy for you! I think since it’s Christmas you should get Handel’s Messiah and listen to it.

    I had a medical miracle too, my arthritis diagnosed when I was 25 was heading me to wheelchair, now I can ride again with new meds.

  23. So wonderful, reading about your hearing. I had wondered how the cochlear implant was working. As a lifelong musician and lover of sound, I can’t imagine deafness. I watched my father go profoundly deaf in early middle age as a result of an early job working in a wind tunnel. No ear protection in the 1940’s, and all the guys in his division went deaf very early on. My dad was a trombonist so he could carry on for a while, but communication with him was so hard, for everyone. Hearing is work, but so is not hearing and trying to …. as I’m sure you know. I am so happy to know you are hearing the music of nature, on top of whatever pop or other music you treasure. I couldn’t live without my classical music but I know music itself, in whatever form, genre or measure, is the thing. Hooray for your CI.

    • Noise-induced hearing loss continues to be a serious problem. We’re seeing it in returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Also, so many of today’s young people will be developing hearing loss due to noise pollution and ear bud use. I worry about them.