Environmental Sound

When you are first implanted, you will often get homework. Some hospitals ask you to keep a sound diary, others may give you a workbook and ask you to work your way through sounds. It is a good idea to keep some record of your progress because, as with all learning, it’s easy to forget how far you have come. You could always blog . . .

Environmental noise is perhaps the most obvious place to start and it is something you may be tested on. Your audiologist will certainly test you on speech comprehension, but they may also test you on your recognition of everyday noises by playing you a tape of familiar – and perhaps not so familiar – sounds.

I was given a workbook and asked to tick off sounds when heard for the first time and when recognised for the first time – two different concepts, which will also vary from person to person depending on level of hearing loss, hearing history, and auditory memory. Early in my new hearing career I recognised the landline phone ring as soon as I heard it for the first time. It sounded very different from the phone ringing when I last heard it in the late 1970s. So what was the crucial bit of information? Its rhythm. It was still an insistent der-derder-der, kind of noise, though its pitch and volume were different.

Sound varies in rhythm, pitch, volume, intensity, and duration and your new CI will pick all these up with greater precision than with hearing aids. I’ve probably left out a few things but that’s the point: sound is infinitely variable and complex, and the CI allows me to appreciate the complexity of what I hear. It’s not just a BANG. Perhaps you’ve seen Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art paintings based on comic books: WHAAM! at Tate Modern is a very good example. Whaam! is onomatopoeic: a word which imitates the sound of a sound. The large typeface and capitals both suggest huge volume; that double a, AA, implies that the sound is slightly drawn out; and that exclamation mark makes you realise the huge force behind the sound of the impact. The placement of the letters suggests the sound is travelling and possibly the stages of impact as the metal crumples. All these are components of just the one sound, suggested visually.

It can be very helpful to group sounds into families which sound alike but also have their own individuality. It’s a bit like learning language at vocabulary level – you get to recognise that particular nouns or verbs behave in certain ways so that you can predict how they will go in the plural or in the past tense. Obvious groups might be: alerting sounds, such as the phone, doorbell, mobile, oven timer, microwave, lift beeps, the photocopier “I’ve just finished the job so take the original off NOW BEFORE I BUG THE WHOLE OFFICE”; alarm sounds, e.g. your home smoke alarm, the fire alarm at work,the alarm in the Tube tunnel (!); machine sounds, such as kettles, washing machines, dishwashers, cars, hoovers; human sounds, voices and laughter; animal sounds, barks, meows, birdsong, bunny whiffles; water sounds, such as taps, loos – listen, for example, for the sound of the cistern filling post-flush as well as the flush itself, running water, flowing water, dripping water, pouring liquids, crashing waves, fizzing drinks. Walking past water cascading over a weir you realise that it is a hybrid sound of running and crashing water sounds.

Most interesting of all to me, and something I absolutely love, was the realisation that brooks really do babble – it’s not just a literary cliché. It’s almost as if the water is talking, as if it’s trying to tell you something, but you can’t make out the words, or they’re just nonsense, which is exactly what babbling is and what babies do as they try to master speech.

This is really just a summary of what has worked for me. Perhaps other things might work for you in building up your own soundscapes: sounds which sound alike, at first, and then comparing sounds of different origin to each other – being a bit more poetic! Those onomatopoeic words really do come in very handy . . .  I’d love to hear how you describe your favourite sound, and have your favourite sounds changed over time as your hearing has improved?

For suggestions on music: see bells

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