“Who’s Going to Tell Her to Turn the Music Down?”

Ran into a situation I never thought I would face in my lifetime – my co-workers told me to turn down the music!

I was sitting in my office with the door open, goofing around with a headset plugged into my computer.  I’ve been listening to music for a few days (for reasons explained below).  Today the sound quality was really poor, so I cranked up the sound as high as it could go and adjusted my implant, but even that didn’t really help.  Suddenly I looked up and realized several co-workers and students were standing in the hall giving me a “thumbs up” sign and grinning.  Then my co-worker, Dee Katovitch (who knows ASL), joined them and started signing the words to the song I was hearing ON MY HEADSET (????).  That’s when I realized my computer’s external speakers were plugged in but I couldn’t hear them.  Unfortunately, EVERYONE on the first floor of my office building could certainly hear them!  Dee graciously signed from the hallway to please turn down the music, while we all burst into laughter. There are so many funny things about this, I don’t know where to start.  Let this be a lesson for you folks who think disability politics can’t be humorous.  One student, Micah Fialka-Feldman, suggested I consider having a dance party.  A co-worker asked for the Deaf professor’s playlist.  I love it.  Weirdness abounds at good ol’ Syracuse University.

This whole thing started when my audiologist made a few final adjustments to my implant last week and then told me to practice listening to music.  Knowing I used to be a musician, he thinks I may be able to re-train my brain to pick up some music.  I’ve never really known anyone with a cochlear implant who can hear music well, but what the heck…let’s give it a try!

I recalled a colleague of mine who got a cochlear implant after becoming deaf in the 1970’s.  Her co-workers were appalled when she showed up with a gigantic nearly-big-as-her-desk 8-track cassette tape player right out “That 70’s Show” (for you young whippersnappers, 8-tracks preceded cassette tapes, which preceded those things you call CDs, which preceded digital music that magically floats through the air to your iPhone).

Picture of 8-track cassette player, with thick 8-track casette in it

8-Track Cassette Player. Image from http://phishcoventry.blogspot.com/2010/10/8tracks-mixtape-website.html

Anyway, my newly-implanted colleague of the ’90’s proceeded to listen to Bread and other greatest hits of the 1970’s in the office.  Her co-workers were happy for her, but wished her music was as cutting edge as her implant.

Bearing this in mind, I didn’t want to subject my co-workers to the greatest hits of the ’80’s, which I didn’t necessarily enjoy even while I was living in the ’80’s!  Air Supply pop or some big-haired mesh-vested ’80’s heavy metal artists, for example, wouldn’t necessarily endear me to my co-workers.  I also didn’t want to get music recommendations from my wife, Tracy.  I love many things about her, but even pre-implant I often looked at her collection of music and joked that my deafness might be one thing making our marriage work.

I considered asking Leroy Moore to send me some Krip Hop suggestions.  I  wondered if some of my more musically and hearing-inclined blind friends and colleagues (like Steve Kuusisto) might have some suggestions or if my question would go down the whole inappropriate blind-people-must-naturally-have-supersonic-hearing-and-excellent-music-skills-especially-if-they-are-Black road.  I tried to download some drum chants/songs used in Deaf culture (didn’t have any luck finding these online, though).  Mulled over Deaf musicians like “Beethovan’s Nightmare,” but wanted something more mainstream.  Then I read a Facebook post by young crip Cara Liebowitz at Kutztown University, who has a fantastic blog and is on the board of DREAM (a national group I advise for college students with disabilities, based at Syracuse University) .  She posted a list of kick-ass inspirational music for disability activists.  I thought, “YES! If I’m going to hear music again, let’s start with something that will be rabble-rousing!”  Because let’s face it…if I use the term “rabble-rousing,” I’m probably not cool enough to select my own music.

So I asked DREAM members to help me out, and several of them added to Cara’s list.  Over the weekend I used a few dusty iTunes gift cards and downloaded a whole bunch of music. (I kept expecting iTunes to flag my account for identity theft, since I’ve never downloaded music before.) Now I’m experimenting with listening to music, and here’s what I’ve found:

  • I need a headset – not speakers.  Unless I crank it up to the point where windows are rattling, the speaker on my computer and external speakers just don’t work well (see cautionary tale at the top of this blog post).  Lucky for me, Advanced Bionics designed my implant with a microphone hanging in the center of the ear right where hearing people typically hear everything (see photo of my implant here), so I can use a regular headset and it works pretty well.  My left ear picks up some really loud bass sounds that sound very “normal,” and that actually is complementing the implant sounds and making the robot/electronic sounds more intelligible.
  • Some songs are more implant friendly.  Male voices or low-range female voices are better, a strong booming bass is good, and a steady low beat is helpful. But that’s just because of my brain and my hearing loss (where the low pitches were last to go).  Other people with implants might prefer pre-adolescent females shattering glass with their high-pitched voices.
  • I need the words.  Thanks to the Internet, I’ve been able to find lyrics for every song.  So the first time I listen to a song, I have the words in front of me.  It helps my brain organize what I’m hearing.  Very interesting experience to not be able to really even hear the melody, and then to feel my brain shifting through the sound to find certain words, catching the melody and then holding on to it as I read the words.  Then after a few times through the song, I can usually find it without trying so hard.  After I find the melody and the bass, I can start to pay attention to the harmonies and instrumentals a bit, just to see if I can find them, catch them, and hold on to them in the same way I did with the words.  Then I have to think a bit to keep everything in my head at the same time, letting the melody float to the top above all the other sounds which are pretty much hitting me at the same volume.  Weird to have such an unconscious process become conscious, and I doubt I could do this without my musical training as a hearing person.
  • Ignore genre.  When I was younger, I would say I liked this type of music or that type of music, but my current playlist has country, alternative, rock, and rap.  I’m realizing that with the implant, the genre doesn’t really matter – the song matters.  That’s why songs by the Dixie Chicks, Eminem, and Michael Jackson didn’t make my final playlist for auditory training  . . . it had nothing to do with my preferences for style or artist, and everything to do with how my implant processes particular songs.  I kind of like this “problem,” though.  If I have to stretch my brain, it’s probably better to use different types of music, anyway.  The only exception might be instrumental or classical music, which hasn’t worked well.  Words seem to really help my brain focus, even when they aren’t especially intelligible.
  • It’s gotta be LOUD.  My implant has to be cranked up and the sound on my computer also has to be loud or it will be mush.  I’m thinking of asking Tracy if she wants to go hear some live music at a bar with me – what used to be intolerably loud might now be just right.  This may be another issue requiring advice from the undergrads – where do I go?  And then I suspect the next question for them will be – what do I wear?  I’m guessing my current wardrobe would leave me looking like Jimmy Fallon in drag doing Mom dancing.  See all the issues this implant is bringing up?

Some songs on my playlist that are working with my implant (in case you want to try them or follow the links to the words):

IMPORTANT TIP! Remember to turn off your speakers before you blast any of these at work! Disclaimer: The author of this blog, her co-workers, Cara Liebowitz, Facebook, my wife, local bars, Jimmy Fallon, and Syracuse University are not responsible for any injuries to hearing people’s ears if Deaf people start blasting these songs in workplaces.  As a public service, I will provide a link to a video for hearing people to learn how to sign “FINISH/ALL DONE” so you can tell the Deaf people to turn it off.  Of course, they may choose some universal sign to answer back in a way that is not as polite, but again…SO not my problem.


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56 Responses to “Who’s Going to Tell Her to Turn the Music Down?”

  1. Joanna Masingila says:


    • Lewis says:

      Funny, yes! But I kinda feel old when people say that technologies I grew up on are antiquated 🙁

      Keep the funny stories coming 🙂

  2. Alan says:

    How about Adele? Skyfall would rock the implant 😉

  3. Wendy! Do you have Spotify??? It is AWESOME, you can listen to pretty much every song ever for free, and you can collaborate with people on playlists. I collaborate with a bunch of people on a “Sexiest of the Palsies” playlist. I also have a huge “Spotify Shuffle” playlist where I basically dump songs that I listen to that I like, and that way when I get some money in my Itunes account, I can go download them to put on my Ipod. The other awesome thing about Spotify is you can have apps within Spotify, and my favorite is called TuneWiki. It shows you the lyrics in real-time as you’re listening to the song, kind of like karaoke, a little bit, where it highlights every line as it’s playing. I love it and it might be useful to actually see which line is being sung at any given point in the song.

    Also, thanks for mentioning me and giving a shoutout to my playlist. You’re fabulous and I love you!

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