New strategy for hearing music with cochlear implants

© Brent Walkera -

Cochlear implants (CIs) of course provide a wide range of benefits to users, but listening to music has remained elusive because of the specific characteristics of musical sounds. CIs are not sensitive to timbre or pitch, which means that music sounds much like random noise to people fitted with these devices.

University of Washington engineers, led by Les Atlas, a professor of electrical engineering, have developed a new algorithm that is intended to help CI users to hear these all-important differences in pitch and timbre. They changed the algorithm used to encode sound so that the capture of sound as rapid micropulses uses varying pulse rates, in a way that helps to convey pitch. The outcome of their studies is published in the Journal IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering.

The results obtained with this algorithm are not particularly significant to a hearing person’s ear but, according to Atlas, the outcomes point to a promising strategy to enhance music perception. “If you’re able to provide some of that, even a degraded version, it’s something users don’t have now,” he says. The new algorithm does not enable people with CIs to discern melody, the next step in the project according to the researchers.

Altas also believes that this change could help CI users to hear speech better in a noisy environment, a constant problem for those fitted with these devices. “You walk into the room, several people are talking. They’re talking at different pitches,” he says. “But if you can’t hear pitch, all those voices squish together and become just noise.”

Source: KPLU radio; Inside Science