Paid a visit to an audiologist the other day.  I’ve felt like my hearing might be worsening over the past year or so, and I hadn’t actually had it checked in some forty years, so I googled the closest ear doctor and paid him a visit.

Thought I might be in for an interesting visit when the last question on the sheet the receptionist handed me was, “Have you ever studied a musical instrument?”

Then she gave me a bio sheet for Dr. Mills, and I have to admit I was ready to walk out, because I don’t think the doctor’s personal life is something I should have to trouble myself with.  But I refrained from bolting and read it anyway.  The sheet gave a few standard facts about him, then described the profound stutter he had gone to great lengths to overcome, establishing in him the gifts of patience and willingness to listen.

Dr. Mills came out to the waiting room to greet me – another surprise – then walked me back to his office.  He spoke slowly and carefully, probing my history and current circumstances, and I was happy I had read his bio, so I could restrain myself from my ugly habit of interrupting people who don’t speak as quickly as I might like.

But that’s all almost beside the point — I wouldn’t be writing about any of this if it weren’t for the results of the test.  I was put in a closet-sized chamber with tiny speakers inserted in my ears.  After playing me a lovely assortment of sine waves, Dr. Mills fed me some white noise, and asked me, from the adjoining room, to repeat the words he was saying.  When the test was complete, he showed me the results, which indicated that my right ear has a minor hearing loss in the medium-high register – so minor, he said, that most people wouldn’t notice it.  The fascinating thing, though, as far as he was concerned, was the way I discerned speech through noise.  Most people, he told me, begin to lose the ability to understand words as the volume of noise approaches the volume of speech.  When the volume of noise equals the volume of speech, the average person is able to understand about 25% of the words.  In my case, however, he increased the noise level above the speech level, and I was still able to discern 90% of what he was saying.

He attributed these results to my musical training, which I have to admit was a nicely scientific affirmation of something one always assumes.  Turns out he is a big supporter of the local symphony, and had attended the percussion ensemble concert I wrote about last month, so he clearly has more than a passing interest in the subject.  Very odd that I’ve had two interactions with medical personnel in the past month (see here for the last one) that introduced me to people who have an active interest in what I do, when I had become accustomed to doctors who found my profession at least uninteresting and at best mysterious.

The whole thing gave me food for thought, especially as it raises issues of the trained vs. the untrained ear.  Training, I suppose, is only one part of the equation – a more crucial ingredient may simply be a lifetime of daily close listening, keeping the wax away.

I remember a class I took years ago in which a student defended his analysis of a composition by saying, “this is the way I hear it” – to which the teacher responded, “you can train yourself to hear it any way you want to hear it.”  I always liked that idea, and my experience the other day confirms its plausibility.  The human organism is astounding, we can teach ourselves to hear the things that matter most to us.  If you want to hear noise as music — just practice.  If you want to hear a clear distinction between noise and music – again, just practice.

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