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Composing with Noise in My Ear

July 17, 2013

I’ve had ear trouble since I was 14 years old and had an accident that left my right ear with a damaged cochlea and no mid-range. I got used to that over the years, automatically turning my head to hear what someone was saying if they were on my “wrong” side. Hearing music hasn’t been a problem though, because I can still hear lows and very highs; in a musical context my brain fills in the gap. And then 2013 started.

Back in January I was on my way to a recording session in the Cleveland area, having an uneventful flight. As we landed the air pressure in the cabin changed somewhat drastically, and my ears began to hurt. By the time we landed I was experiencing a sound — specifically tinnitus, akin to hearing a noisy steam radiator going full blast — and it hasn’t stopped since. I’ve come to measure it in musical dynamic terms — what else? — from ppp to fff and everything in between. It has only gone completely silent a couple of times, and even then for an hour at most. For the first few months it would keep me from falling asleep and, quite often, it would wake me in the middle of the night because it was too loud.

Doctors don’t know what starts tinnitus or how to stop (cure) it; the best they can do so far is help mask it. Essentially, hearing loss (in my case in my good ear, in the uppermost register) causes the brain to try making up the difference by sending a feedback loop to the auditory nerve. The result is that I experience a “real” sound — an aural hallucination (there’s got to be a better word or term than that) — that just won’t turn off.

I now know that a lot of musicians I know personally have forms of tinnitus (specific pitches or the “white noise” effect I have), and I empathize with them. But the folks I truly feel for — because it affects me the same exact way — are the composers (and that includes jazz musicians who compose on the spot). How the heck do you compose when you have a constant sound in your ear?

It has taken a little more than six months, but I’ve begun composing again, partly out of necessity because I have a couple of commissions sitting on my desk with deadlines, but mostly because I feel like I can work around the tinnitus. The small upside is that it is noise and not specific pitches. I’ve read that Smetana, whose own tinnitus took the form of a particular high note, wound up incorporating it into some of his music.

It makes composing even more difficult, because I have to take more breaks or go a day or two without putting pencil to paper (or computer keyboard to whatever), but at least I’m doing it. I have no idea if or how this will affect the music I write. We’ll see.

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One Comment
  1. David Wolfson permalink

    Wow, Steve. Very very rough. Congratulations and a lot of admiration for dealing with the new “normal” so bravely. I think I’d still be in the middle of digging my pit of self-pity…

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