Mis-hearing pitches

Edited: November 21, 2017, 3:27 PM · I have severe hearing loss, and wear hearing aids in both ears. I've learned to cope with this for a number of years now.

Now something else has gone wrong - I am mis-hearing pitches, usually hearing them sharper than they are, and more often in the higher frequencies. For example, the 1st harmonic on the E string (E6) sounds sharp, but as it's a harmonic I know the pitch is correct.

I am hearing the notes clearly enough, but it's the perceived pitch that is faulty.

I do what I can to play in tune (reference notes against open strings, play double stops etc) and the feedback from other normal-hearing musicians is quite good. I sound pretty much in tune, but it's a struggle.

So, my question - is pitch mis-recognition just another symptom of severe hearing loss?

Thank you.

PS This problem is still present when I play without hearing aids, so that rules out distortion of pitch because of the amplification boost they give.

Replies (20)

November 21, 2017, 5:08 PM · I'm no expert but I think it might be a symptom of your hearing loss. I had a student once who wore hearing aids, and he struggled with intonation in the upper register. It sounds as if you're already doing everything I suggested to him to try.
November 21, 2017, 6:57 PM · Did you have perfect pitch before? It is a documented phenomenon, that for some people, around mid-life, and sometimes a bit later, their entire pitch mapping can shift up, sometimes as much as a minor third! I sure am hoping that never happens to me.
November 22, 2017, 8:56 AM · From what you say it seems you judge the harmonic to be sharp relative to the open string so the distortion affects the higher frequencies predominantly. If that's the case referencing high pitches against a lower open string might be misleading. Does the problem affect both ears to the same degree? Very occasionally a shift in pitch mapping affecting both ears may reflect a central auditory processing disturbance, such as can be caused by certain medications.
Edited: November 22, 2017, 1:14 PM · @Lieschen - I didn't literally have perfect pitch before, but relative pitch was very acute, and I could hear microtonal differences quite easily.

@Steve - both ears are affected, and the right ear is a bit worse. It seems to happen only on certain pitches, eg an octave above open D. If I play an A880 in isolation, then the pitch perception is nebulous, and I usually have to touch an open A quickly to make sure the pitch is accurate.

My audiologist just gives me a blank look when I mention the pitch problem, and of course a standard audiogram serves no purpose at this finer level of pitch discernment.

I'm OK with unisons, octaves, 4ths and 5ths, and can clearly hear the difference between a sweet or sour major third, but individual notes take a lot of work and checking. I'm still able to play a violin C and a piano C and hear the difference (usually played against an open E), and the same goes for the likes of F blunt (the 1/4 tone between F nat and F#).

I've had my playing evaluated by the healthy ears of good players, and it sounds reasonably good, but a lot of the enjoyment is taken out of it and it's a blow to confidence as well.

I often wonder how many of the 'big boys' suffer hearing loss that affects their playing in any way. My guess is that they would try to keep quiet about it!

November 23, 2017, 4:26 PM · Violinists often have a problem with deafness in their left ears as a result of noise exposure, a good reason not to use a shoulder rest. In any case, whether you play the violin or not, as you age your hearing is often not as sharp as it used to be. So much for the “big boys” - now about you. You sound fine to me on the videos you have posted. Just keep doing whatever it is you are doing and have your playing checked by others just to make sure. But that’s why people go to lessons anyway, isn’t it? To make sure they’re doing things right. I know this must be really frustrating for you but anyone listening to your recordings would never realize the extent of your problem. So keep up the good work!
Edited: November 24, 2017, 2:39 AM · I suspect this kind of problem isn't uncommon but is much under-reported. Most non-musicians simply wouldn't notice it, or would avoid listening to the kind of music that showed it up. Even amongst those who are aware that something isn't quite right, most wouldn't be able to articulate it like you can. My guess is that it's an age-related degeneration of the cochlear hair cells and unfortunately, like so many age-related conditions, there isn't a great deal that can be done about it.
November 24, 2017, 3:15 AM · I am sure that most audiologists aren't trained to deal with special populations, such as musicians, and I would guess that many don't have too much interest in reading the literature that educates them on things outside of the standard realm, unless they were perhaps dealing with some sort of non-standard issue that severely impacts functioning for the average person with no special skills.
If you are a professional musician, you could encourage your audiologist to educate themselves and combine this with their existing expertise, by framing your issues as a loss to the way in which you make a living, which may make them feel the issue is more urgent.
Edited: November 24, 2017, 6:51 AM · Contact Marshall Chasin:
He specialized in helping musicians with hearing loss.

It all depends on your audiogram, but also a lot on the quality of hearing aids and how well are they setup. Hearing aid setup is more art than a science and it requires a skilled technician open to work with you until you are happy with music reception.
If your "bone hearing" is any better than "air hearing", make sure that your violin touches collar bone, and chin directly. This does not solve problem of incoming sounds from other musicians, but could help you play in tune.

November 27, 2017, 12:38 AM · Everyone - thanks for all your responses!
November 27, 2017, 8:39 AM · I don't think it's a pitch problem (which is why the audiologist is stumped). I think it has to do with harmonic content, which is what guides our sense of intonation more than just pitch itself. When we evaluate a tone on a violin, we are listening to all of the partials, not just the fundamental. When tuning an E, for example, we listen for degree of openness. For E-flat and other non-open string pitches, we listen for a very specific degree of "not openness." For some degree of brightness or darkness to the timbre that we hone over years or decades of listening and correcting. At this point in my career, I can almost always tell (unless the violin is really bad) if a note picked out of context is in tune. I imagine most experienced teachers can. What I'm listening for is timbre, not relative pitch. It's instinctual and not deliberate.

I believe that hearing aids may change the balance of partials (or overtones, whichever terminology you prefer), or even filter them to the point where not enough harmonic information is present. I've experienced this occasionally with violins that were so bright that it disoriented my ear to the point where it all sounded in tune--there was no change in timbre with small corrections of the finger.

I've also seen differences in pitch discrimination with older piano tuning customers who wear hearing aids. The problem is worse when the person doesn't consistently wear the. Pianos aren't tuned by their fundamentals, but by their partials, and with different partial pairs in different registers. For example, in the middle of the range we tune the 4th partial of the lower note to the 2nd partial of the upper notbof the octave. And the partial pairs change depending on the size of the pianos. Ideally, many partial pairs of an octave should all be in tune. But they aren't, due to imperfections of all pianos. If you pick one pair of partials, ALL of the others are now out of tune. That's why, even for those with normal hearing, pianos, especially in the bass where many sets of partials are audible, are technically impossible to tune.

This isn't a thread on piano tuning. My point is that when people with hearing aids listen to a piano, they are not hearing the same harmonic content. So I may tune to one partial set, but they are not hearing it. They're hearing some other pair which by definition has to be out of tune. And so they complain that the piano is "out of tune." Which it is...to their hearing aid. The problem is, they'll never be able to artulate which partial pair they're hearing. And I can't adjust the software I use to reflect what they might be hearing.

So because of my experience in trying to tune pianos for those with hearing aids, I strongly suspect a similar phenomena is occurring with tuning a violin: certain designs of hearing aids are presenting a different mix of partials, or filtering ones we need for fine pitch discrimination.

November 30, 2017, 8:15 AM · Scott, that's interesting, however I still have the same problem without the hearing aids (I did mention that in my OP.)

The only difference without the hearing aids is that everything is duller and quieter.

Edited: December 1, 2017, 10:06 AM · Scott, hearing aids do not process most of the partials. They are limited to speech recognition. Hearing aid producers seem not to care about music lovers with hearing loss - musicians or audiophiles.
Audiologists do not bother to (or can not) measure anything under 125Hz or above 8000Hz.
As I wrote before, paraphrasing Mr. Chasin, the main limit is in AD converter. No matter how sophisticated sound processing is (and nowadays a hearing aid has got quite lot of processing power) garbage in - garbage out!
Moreover, I doubt that there is enough room to store a decent DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) in a hearing aid.... so the sound goes form natural (analogue) to limited digital input to poor analogue output.
Listening to digital recordings is even more futile: now we have DAC > plus the whole above cycle. Results are disappointing.

There are some solutions to this challenge, but it seems that old fashioned analogue aids were superior for music processing, within their own limitations.

Jim, have you ever tried viola? It's sound may be more pleasurable for your haring loss, because there is a possibility that overtones (one 5th lower) are well within your hearing range.

December 1, 2017, 9:38 AM · "Scott, hearing aids do not process most of the partials. They are limited to speech recognition. "

That's kind of what I thought. Although I'll add that when I did my PTG tuning exam, one of the judges did have a hearing aid (they use a committee of 3-4 judges). I'm not sure how he did it...

Edited: December 1, 2017, 10:30 AM · Scott, your last post but one may well explain a pitch problem a former leader of my chamber orchestra said he had. Apparently, when he used a mute (a standard Tourte) he claimed the violin tuning went very slightly flat. This puzzled me because no-one else could hear it, or experienced it on their own instruments, and I couldn't think of a violin hardware explanation for it. It now seems that the muting of the upper partials may have tricked his brain into "hearing" a slight fall in pitch that objectively didn't exist.
December 1, 2017, 10:57 AM · Someone should invent and sell music friendly hearing aids. It would reach a wide audience and make a killing.
December 1, 2017, 11:01 AM · I just found this. Don't know how good people think these are.


Edited: December 2, 2017, 6:13 PM · Thanks for the link!
A company which puts a mirror image of a violin player on their page, does not instil confidence that they know what they are talking about. Better sampling is a step closer to mimic analog sound. However, it is not about sampling per se, but the limitation of AD converter at the input. Here are Mr. Chasin's articles about the challenge:
Some of our fellow musicians more knowledgable of the subject and solid background in electronics have already been commenting in the past.
December 1, 2017, 3:26 PM · Rocky,

When you talk about there not being enough room, do you mean that a hearing aid with all of the adequate hardware would be less discreet? If so, maybe there is a way to make them more fashionable? Or is it just too heavy to wear altogether?

December 1, 2017, 4:06 PM · yes, exactly. My FiiO X5 is quite bulky for a digital player - no way to pack that hardware in a few square millimetres!
December 1, 2017, 8:07 PM · I once used one of those super-high-pitched battery-operated mosquito repellers playing at an outdoor concert in the south in the summer. Another violinist got all pissy about it, claiming it messed with her pitch.

I don't know if my fascinating story is relevant to the discussion. Probably not...

But what's more important? Bug protection, or good pitch?

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