Music to our ears

The University of Leeds' Alinka Greasley on a new project on hearing loss.

According to Action on Hearing Loss, 11 million people in the UK (1 in 6) have some form of hearing loss, and it is estimated that this figure will rise to 15.6 million (1 in 5) by 2035.

Hearing loss (whether mild, moderate, severe or profound) can have a negative impact on physical and psychological health, potentially causing withdrawal from social activities, social isolation and loneliness, and increased mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. While these psychosocial effects have been well documented over time, the needs of the growing ageing population require urgent action. The scale of the issue is reflected in the Action Plan on Hearing Loss (compiled by the Department of Health and NHS England), which stresses the importance of early diagnosis and timely support in ensuring that the needs of people with hearing loss are met across public service sectors.

Digital hearing aids (HAs) help people with hearing loss by amplifying sounds to make them louder and clearer. In particular, HAs are designed to amplify speech signals, facilitating aural-verbal communication integral to the everyday interactions of the majority of the population. Despite the benefits, many adults take a great deal of convincing to have their hearing tested (an average of 10 years from noticing a problem to visiting an audiologist), and it is estimated that an additional 5 million people in the UK could benefit from wearing HAs. Why are people so reluctant to get their hearing tested? How could the situation be improved? HAs are not fully corrective (unlike glasses for vision), and may present issues such as discomfort, or difficulty in certain acoustic environments. A period of adjustment is necessary to adapt to the new sound world provided by the HAs and this can be challenging for people expecting an ‘instant fix’. HAs are increasingly sophisticated – particularly for speech perception – but they are not able to replace ‘normal’ hearing and are not always able to adapt to rapidly changing auditory environments such as noisy urban spaces.

One ubiquitous aspect of everyday auditory environments is music. Music has a range of powerful physical, social, and emotional effects on individuals, and its role in physical and psychological well-being is increasingly documented (see, for example, Raymond MacDonald and colleagues’ 2012 book Music, Health and Wellbeing). It is surprising, therefore, that little research has examined how levels of hearing affect our engagement with music. How do different levels of hearing loss affect musical experiences? How do HAs enable and affect music perception? Given the elevated position of music in people’s lives and the growing incidence of hearing loss among the population, it is important to address these questions.

I am leading an AHRC-funded research project, ‘Hearing Aids for Music’, which is a collaboration between the University of Leeds and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. We are exploring HA users’ experiences with music in detail, using a combination of survey, interviews and audiometry. This includes an online national survey – available in British Sign Language (BSL) – which seeks to represent the views of a wide range of HA users across the UK. We hope that including BSL in the survey will encourage wider accessibility in other studies.

So many of us take listening to our favourite music for granted, and developing HA technology to facilitate this may be a key factor to support the well-being of those who experience hearing loss. It is imperative that psychologists begin to consider the wider implications of hearing loss on health and well-being before the 2035 statistics presented by Action on Hearing Loss become a reality.

Alinka Greasley
University of Leeds

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