June 24, 2018 / 1:00 AM

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Cochlear implant technology may soon allow deaf users to detect music


Choosing "worst" among a host of sensual impairments is a loaded question, but no doubt that being unable to hear is near the worst. We can't imagine not being able to listen to the music we listen to every day at Music Times. Thanks to cochlear implants, deaf individuals have gotten to experience a bit of the aural world, but music has proven to be a problem. Researchers at the University of Washington believe they've solved the problem. A new algorithm for programming the implants seems to have given test subjects the ability to detect music. 

Standard implants use a similar algorithm to categorize sounds into high, middle and low frequencies. That information is translated to electrodes connected to nerves in the ear, translating sound to the brain. The issue is that standard algorithms are too stiff. An implant user can hear regular sound alright, but the shifting pitches of music are too complex for normal implants. 

 "If you sing 'Happy Birthday to You' to someone who has a cochlear implant, they'll have no difficultly understanding what you're saying," explained Jay Rubinstein, a researcher working on the project. "But if you play a version that is devoid of lyrics or rhythm, they can't tell the difference between that and 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.'"

Cochlear implant users are also unable to detect timbre is music. They can detect notes being played, but if the same note is played on both a guitar and a piano, it sounds the same. The system isn't perfect yet, but typical test subjects scored 90 percent on a timbre-detection test, versus 45 percent using the old implants. 

For now, Rubinstein estimates it will take at least a few more years to get the new implants to the market, in order to figure out how to put the new technology on processors that can fit into preexisting implants. 

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