How a cochlear implant and music go together

Hobby musician Walter Widler and his life-long passion for music. His deafness does not stop Austrian Walter Widler from entertaining people at parties and events with his music bands and he shows that music with a cochlear implant can sound great!

cochlear implant and music: the musician and CI user Walter with his violin

The big concert hall in Vienna is sold out. The music is fading away. When Walter Widler takes down the bow from the strings of his violin and bows to the audience, not only the dark wood of his violin is shining, but also the dark audio processor behind Walter’s ear, which allows him to hear his music in the first place.

Walter was born into a musical family. Every child played at least one instrument. He began playing the violin when he was ten. “I wanted this so desperately, I pestered my parents until I was eventually allowed to take violin lessons”, Walter remembers. He had learned to play the recorder when he was younger, despite a hearing loss that he had acquired as a little child. But listening to his mother on the violin had evoked his passion for this instrument. He received his first hearing aid at the age of twelve years. It did not stop him to become an appraised violin student at his local music school. He loved performing as a soloist and in the orchestra. The violin was not the only instrument the young man learned to play. He added the viola, the saxophone and the guitar. And he started to sing: “I am a baritone-bass.” His face is lightening up when he is talking about music.

Farewell to music

Thinking back to the year 2002 makes Walter’s smile disappear. It was a painful year for him. After several bouts of sudden hearing loss he had to acknowledge that he did not have any useable hearing left despite two hearing aids. Speech understanding of no more than 30% made communication almost impossible for this cheerful man.

When his bands were playing, he sat in the audience, but “I felt like an outsider. I was listening but I did not hear anything. I felt unbelievably sad not being able to play music anymore.” With his hearing loss, Walter also lost his independence in everyday life. “When I was home alone, I could not hear the door bell or the telephone.”

Back to the swing of life

Walter lived in silence for two years. Then a colleague recommended getting a cochlear implant. “Why not?”, Walter thought. “Things can only get better.” The implant was Walter’s only chance to communicate and make music again. And it did not only bring his hearing back, but also his self-confidence. “When I was deaf, I was always afraid that I might misunderstand something. Or not hear people at all. I was worried they might consider me arrogant.” His new and better hearing affected his social life in a positive way. And his music.

“After I got the cochlear implant, it took a while until I reached an acceptable level in music again”, Walter recalled. Rehab in the hospital and at home with his wife were the first steps towards taking up music again. His audio processor fitting was another step towards success: “I did not give up until I was happy with the sound quality.”

The violin and viola are highly challenging for every musician’s hearing. They have no frets on the fingerboard that help them find the correct position of their fingers. The only way to check the pitch is by hearing it. “I check it with my cochlear implant. Since I have started using my special musical fitting programme, 99% of all the tones are correct.”

Perfect combination – cochlear implant and music

“Good hearing is essential for me when I play alongside wind instruments”, Walter explains. He now plays in three different folk bands. He does not use music sheets, but plays everything by heart. And he transposes using his hearing. “The violin is tuned in C, the clarinet in B. I need to transpose and hear if what I am playing sounds right.” When he is accompanying a choir, a vocal group or a harmonica group with his guitar, he needs to recognize a dominant seventh and identify the correct chords and pitches. “I want to feel and hear what a piece of music is doing.”

The perfect combination of instruments is possible with Walter’s perfect combination of hearing systems. “On the left side I can only hear low pitches which are amplified by my hearing aid. This is important sound information for a musician. “But”, he adds, “without my cochlear implant I would be lost, not only in music.”

Read more on the interation of music and cochlear implant!