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Mander Organs
Colin Pykett

Hearing aids and the organist

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I wonder whether it might be worthwhile to have a discussion about the merits of the many hearing aids which are available in relation to their effectiveness when playing or listening to the organ.  They range in price from nothing (the NHS types in the UK) to several thousand pounds, though it is far from certain whether paying more will automatically result in better performance where the organ is concerned.  There are also several other matters, such as whether one's audiologist knows enough about music rather than speech (for which all hearing aids are actually optimised).  S/he might provide a 'music' program if you ask for one, which can be selected manually, but quite what this might do on a particular product is shrouded in mystery.  Generally it does little more than turn off most of the clever processing used for speech, so that (for instance) the things can be prone to burst into oscillation and thus produce that annoying feedback whistle which used to be so common with older types.  Not the sort of thing you want to happen at the Albert Hall I suggest.  And then, quite what is meant by 'music' to the aid itself?  Does it mean the aids when switched to this mode are better for attending a mega-decibel pop concert rather than for the organ or going to a classical orchestral concert?  And the effect of different aids on different types of music can be dramatic, since the sustained tones of the organ are interpreted by some of them as the onset of feedback and so they do the most peculiar things in trying to prevent it.  For example, you can suddenly find the organ you are playing is apparently full of warbling celeste stops as the aids attempt to prevent what they think is feedback by modulating the frequencies or phases of the signals several times a second!  On top of all this sort of thing is imposed the type of hearing loss you might have.

I could go on to describe my own experiences in more detail, but preferably would like some reactions from other members before doing this as it might be of little interest.  In any case, it's only polite to invite others to step up to the podium first!

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I hope I may be forgiven for going slightly off-topic here.  I had an interesting conversation with the saxophonist Gerard McChrystal over the summer about musicians' hearing.  He spoke of a crisis waiting to happen to a whole generation of performers, because not enough attention had been paid in the past to the high volumes to which individual musicians are subject. 

I cannot find the link now, but I recall watching a video of Lorin Maazel's Ring Without Words (the main themes of Wagner's cycle compressed into a symphonic piece).  The (literal) hammer blows in the percussion section seemed to cause distress to the players around.

I couldn't really say how the risk for organists compares to that for other musicians.  I imagine organ tuners don't have it easy!

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In my mid forties, around the time it became apparent I needed a different optical prescription for reading, I noticed a change in my hearing, such that the alto / tenor compass became a lot more prominent. Before I was convinced of the change, I’d checked out the tweeters on the hifi and asked whether a couple of organs I’d been away from a while had had their mixtures tamed.

I have had a couple of hearing tests but I echo that these were uninterested in anything but the natural spoken voice frequencies, which I’d guess vary by less than two octaves, a small fraction of the audible compass. Both audio testers were uninterested in me discussing musical pitch or Hz frequencies.

I have been mulling over two thoughts, the first in line with the previous post about correction, though perhaps more interesting to this forum how the ageing process of human hearing affects the musician; whether composer, orchestrator, performer or instrument technician. In the case of organ voicers or those deciding on pipe scaling, especially volume progressions through the compass, what were they hearing when they’d finished? - the shrill and exciting sharp mixtures I loved in my immature twenties or the more restrained balanced sounds, of the same pipes, in my late forties?!

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I have a pair of the 'several thousand pounds' hearing aids, yet I cannot hear the top end of a 1' stop or even of a 2' stop.

I assume that, whereas the hearing aids are able to amplify sounds within my hearing range, above a certain point I can only assume that my hearing ability is non-existent, presumably due to too much Emerson, Lake and Palmer at high volumes during my youth.

Incidentally, nothing to do with organs, but I can hear voices behind me in a crowded restaurant very well, but struggle to hear clearly people sitting in front of me!

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8 hours ago, John Robinson said:

Incidentally, nothing to do with organs, but I can hear voices behind me in a crowded restaurant very well, but struggle to hear clearly people sitting in front of me!

John - regarding this phenomenon, do you mean when you are wearing your hearing aids, or naturally?

Martin

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Over 10 years ago I put together an article about age-related hearing loss (the most common type which eventually affects many if not all of us) and its relation to the sounds of the organ.  It's at http://www.pykett.org.uk/arhlandob.htm if you are interested.  It includes mp3 clips of how organs might sound to people having varying degrees of ARHL and these have since been used quite widely as demo pieces in educational, musical and audio circles.

That was around the time I realised I would probably benefit from hearing aids at some point in the future, but I wondered how they would cope with my musical interests.  Subsequently I did get them and found that the answer to the question is 'not very well' at least for me.  However, for everyday purposes where speech is important, they seem to be amazingly good.  I recently got a new pair of NHS aids (Bernafon JU7 C) with the optional 'music program' I mentioned previously.  Although still experimenting with them, so far they don't really improve the major features of my musical hearing defects in that (like John Robinson) I still can't hear much beyond top A on a 2 foot stop (7 kHz).  That's because it's been made abundantly clear to me several times that if your hearing has gone, then it has gone and no amount of amplification can compensate for it.  So although I was naively expecting them to restore things like the sound of a cymbalstern in a particular recording, they either don't do it or they do it unsatisfactorily.  For me, the best solution for recorded (not live) music so far is simply to use an old fashioned hi-fi amplifier incorporating adjustable tone controls (EQ in modern parlance).  So I still use my old Linsley Hood amp from the 1970s which has the rare luxury of switchable corner frequencies for the tone controls, and I suspect this provides as much compensation for my hearing defects as I'm likely to get.

Like Owen Turner, I've found audiologists (and even ENT consultant surgeons - whom I have paid to see privately at no mean fees) seem unwilling or unable to engage with one at the level of music or acoustical physics.  Maybe they feel at a disadvantage with patients who know something about Hz and the dynamic range of orchestral brass.  Whatever the reason, they either don't know the answers to questions I should like answered, or they retreat into a defensive shell.  Also the whole subject of hearing aids involves some degree of pressured selling and commercial secrecy about what the aids actually do with audio signals, so going into your local high street provider can be like going to your local car dealer for a new vehicle in terms of the very expert selling pressures you encounter. 

On the basis of what various acquaintances have said, I'm not sure paying for more expensive aids would necessarily achieve much where music is concerned.  They certainly offer more in the way of things like bluetooth connectivity, or being able to adjust them from your iPhone rather than fiddling about with awkward physical switches on the aids themselves, etc.  So I haven't yet tried them myself.

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My wife has top-end hearing aids, and has kept near the best available for a couple of decades now.  With each update she finds that she can hear more things that she was previously unable to hear; with her latest she has started hearing birdsong which previously she could not.  She has always enjoyed music, and is conscious that her newer hearing aids have helped her appreciation of it.

Paul

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Interesting, because I got my first (NHS) hearing aid about 3 months ago. (I'm 69)

The tests showed the usual age-related drop off in high frequency abilities.
As others have said, there is no doubt it improves my ability to hear what people are saying. However I find it a significant detriment to hearing music.
When I'm playing or listening to music, everything seems to have a 'sharp edge' to it. Almost like a high pitched 'edge of distortion' on top of everything.

They said they would contact me to see how I was getting on and when they do, I'll certainly discus this. No one mentioned 'music' settings but to be fair, I never thought about it so never mentioned music!

No idea if it's true but the audiologist said that expensive, private aids undoubtedly had many more bells and whistles but that their acoustic properties were not significantly different.

Steve

 

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I have Boots hearing aids. They were, at the time I got them, more or less "top of the range". I got these rather than NHS ones especially since I know cheaper ones were not good for music - in particular, organ music.

I found that high notes caused a lot of distortion but when I told the audiologist this she didn't know how to improve it. I brought in a tablet with a programme that played pure sounds at various pitches and asked if it could be the "whistle-block" that was causing the problem. She didn't think so but did try turning it off. Hey presto: no distortion! I was amazed she hadn't come across this before as she was very experienced and an adviser to others. She gave me a "music programme" which didn't have the "whistle block". Worth trying that first.

I still found listening to music and, especially, organs unpleasant but it is now much better as I later got her to turn down the treble on the music programme quite a bit. Less good for speech but much better for the high sounds on organs. It is also much better for listening to strings as they were very "scratchy".

I have since also got NHS hearing aids which are very good for normal use but do have some distortion when listening to organ music.

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I am the audiologist's worst nightmare, being a music lover and amateur musician who spent all his career in the operational side of TV broadcasting.  I had age-related hearing loss, but this was made much worse by the use of platinum based chemotherapy in 2016.  It was no longer a pleasure to listen to music.

I decided to invest in some top end hearing aids and found an audiologist who was prepared to listen to me and who, in cooperation with the hearing aid manufacturers, has set up a music program that is better than I could ever have expected.  I have been able to specify the levels I want at each frequency and the makers have recommended the best settings for other parameters, such as compression.  The anti-whistle features have been turned off, but as long as I keep my hands away from my ears, there is no feedback. 

It has been a process of gradual refinement, but in the past few months I have attended a number of orchestral concerts and organ recitals and I now doubt I could achieve anything better.  Fifteen metres from 100-strong Vienna Philharmonic playing fff, I was not conscious of any significant distortion. 

For those who have hearing problems, it is worth persisting with the audiologist.  Mine said that he had learnt from the experience of working with me and felt he was now better able to advise other customers.  My hearing will never be good, but with high quality hearing aids and a helpful audiologist,  I can now enjoy music once again.

I would say to John Robinson that I have had the same difficulty in restaurants.  I have even resorted to a personal microphone, connected by Bluetooth, for my dinner guest - but that is rather inconvenient!  This week my audiologist has set up a new program for me, fixing the hearing aid into the "speech in loud noise" setting and reducing the overall levels slightly.  My first impressions are very encouraging as the hearing aids seem to focus more on the person I am listening to.

To Paul Hodges, I would say I had never realised how noisy the birds in London can be.  I sometimes wish they would be quiet!

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6 minutes ago, john carter said:

For those who have hearing problems, it is worth persisting with the audiologist.  Mine said that he had learnt from the experience of working with me and felt he was now better able to advise other customers.  My hearing will never be good, but with high quality hearing aids and a helpful audiologist,  I can now enjoy music once again.

Be interested to know what make/model you are using!

Steve

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This topic was covered in a topic started on 5 Feb. 2017. Since then I have been using a pair of Resound Linx 2. 961 aids. They were not cheap but are a vast improvement on the nhs ones I was originally prescribed. As has already been mentioned, what is suitable for speech is unlikely be suitable for music, particularly the organ.  It is possible to adjust the settings to suit via an iphone & then save both these & the location,   this is about as good as it gets! They are not perfect but at least the organ no longer sounds like a badly out-of-tune fairground one!

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15 minutes ago, MikeK said:

This topic was covered in a topic started on 5 Feb. 2017.

Thank you for reminding us of this, and I apologise for not having remembered it and starting this one which has covered some of the same ground - though it's been most interesting all the same and I have found it valuable.  I do have difficulty finding out such things on this forum though - sometimes the search facility seems to work better than at others.  Am I missing a trick here?  Maybe there's a better method for turning up previous related topics or messages than using search?

Anyway, apologies again.

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My wife's are also currently Phonak - and they have a music program; it's a bit more complex than some because she has very delicate eardrums and requires a limiter as well to prevent physical damage.  Previously she had been using Siemens, and before that Resound (they were the ones that first convinced her that throwing money at the problem was actually worth while).

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16 hours ago, Martin Cooke said:

John - regarding this phenomenon, do you mean when you are wearing your hearing aids, or naturally?

Martin

When I'm wearing them!
I've spoken to the audiologist about it but he can't think of a solution.

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14 hours ago, Colin Pykett said:

Over 10 years ago I put together an article about age-related hearing loss (the most common type which eventually affects many if not all of us) and its relation to the sounds of the organ.  It's at http://www.pykett.org.uk/arhlandob.htm if you are interested. 

Very interested!  I've bookmarked it and will have a look when time permits.  Thank you.

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6 hours ago, sbarber49 said:

I have Boots hearing aids. They were, at the time I got them, more or less "top of the range". I got these rather than NHS ones especially since I know cheaper ones were not good for music - in particular, organ music.

I have since also got NHS hearing aids which are very good for normal use but do have some distortion when listening to organ music.

I bought mine about three years ago from Boots - Phonak B90.

Since you mention it, I still have my (free) NHS hearing aids.  Having heard what you and others have said, I think I'll invest in some new batteries and try them to compare with the  (expensive) private ones.

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6 hours ago, john carter said:

I would say to John Robinson that I have had the same difficulty in restaurants.  I have even resorted to a personal microphone, connected by Bluetooth, for my dinner guest - but that is rather inconvenient!  This week my audiologist has set up a new program for me, fixing the hearing aid into the "speech in loud noise" setting and reducing the overall levels slightly.  My first impressions are very encouraging as the hearing aids seem to focus more on the person I am listening to.

Thanks for that!   I believe that mine have a 'speech in loud noise' facility, though I hadn't considered that it might not be activated.  I'll have a word with the audiologist when I next see him.

 

Er... may I please apologise for making FOUR posts in rapid succession.  I promise that I am not trying to take over this very helpful thread!

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I’m getting a lot from this dialogue and I find Colin’s article http://www.pykett.org.uk/arhlandob.htm fascinating. 

I am also conscious that most contributors to this chain have real hearing  challenges where I’m interested in something more vain. Obviously the loss of hearing of speech is much more life fundamental than my concerns about my “hifi” audio capabilities. But then, I have spent quite some time selecting, and money on hifi at times.

I am reliably informed by my wife that any conversational problems I have are to do with listening not hearing...

The comparison with eyesight is telling. I need one pair of glasses to survive - recognise people, see where I’m going, drive, etc. My other two pairs are minority use. I unrealistically hypothesise that I ought to have different hearing assistance or settings for different ensembles; perhaps a string quartet set, a classical orchestra set, a Bruckner set, a baroque organ set, an octopod set. I guess the technology is not on my wavelength yet (apologies - couldn’t resist an acoustics joke).

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John, in the "normal" program, your hearing aid, like mine, probably switches between different settings automatically, depending on what it thinks you want to hear.  That is fine for most of the time.  The change I have made is to have the option of fixing it in the "speech in loud noise" mode, which makes it easier to concentrate on the conversation you want. 

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I only have 'standard' NHS hearing aids, but I experience the same problems described by John Robinson and John Carter.  It has been said to me (slightly maliciously, I felt), "You only hear what you want to hear".  I can honestly say, in my case, that this is totally untrue.  But I can understand that people may get a mistaken perception.  Like other misfortunes in life, the problems of deafness are not always understood by non-sufferers.

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Having looked back through the posts above, some points seem to have been made several times and it might be worth summarising them:

1. Since hearing aids are mainly optimised for speech they may not work as well, or as expected, for organ music.  Several posters have remarked on the peculiar 'celeste', 'warbling' or 'fairground' sound imposed on organ music (as well as other sorts).

2. Better results for organ sounds might be obtained if your audiologist provides you with a separate, user-selectable, setting or 'program' for music.  This can be done on the cheapest aids and those offered by the NHS as well as the more expensive ones, but it seems that you might have to ask explicitly for it to be done rather than assume it comes as standard.

3. In some (most?) hearing aids the music program seems to turn off some or all of the clever automatic processing used for speech, in particular the 'whistle block' facility to prevent acoustic feedback.

4. The above means that when you switch to 'music' mode, your aids might start whistling (mine do).  This can be stopped by turning down the volume, though it means that the amount of compensation the aids can then offer is more limited than in 'speech' mode.

But all this must depend on the type of hearing defect you have.  The list above applies to me, and no doubt my type of hearing loss has unconsciously coloured what I've just written (I have moderate bilateral presbycusis - age related hearing loss in both ears with a moderate and similar amount of hearing still remaining).  Therefore none of it is written in tablets of stone and you would be best advised to take the advice of your hearing professional.  Having made this necessary disclaimer, I nevertheless think it's fair to say that we have jointly made useful progress here.  I've never seen anything like this before, and should therefore like to thank all those who have contributed so positively by sharing their knowledge and experiences.

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