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Cochlear Implant User Can Hear Music Thanks To New Strategy

Update Date: Oct 11, 2013 10:27 AM EDT

A technological advancement for cochlear implant users is in the works for those who would like to hear an improvement in music, according to a new research.

"A cochlear implant is a small, electronic device that lets a person who is profoundly deaf or hard of hearing perceive sound," said the University of Washington. "One piece is placed on the skin behind a person's ear, while another portion is surgically inserted under the skin. The implant works by directly stimulating the auditory nerve, bypassing damaged portions of the ear. The implant's signals are sent to the brain, which recognizes the signals as sounds."

UW scientists developed a new way for users to pick up on the sounds of musical melodies and notes. They did this by developing a processing approach to detect pitch and timbre in songs. 

"Pitch is associated with the melody of a song and intonation when speaking," said UW. "Timbre, while hard to define, relates most closely to the varying sounds that different instruments make when playing the same note." 

Researchers practiced their technique on eight cochlear-implant users by playing the common melody of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". According to the study, "They found that timbre recognition - the ability to distinguish between instruments - increased significantly, but the ability to perceive a melody was still difficult for most people."

The researchers hope to mend the signal processing to make it compatible with cochlear implants that are already on the market so users can improve their music listening experience.

"With cochlear implants, we've always been oriented more toward speech sounds. This strategy represents a different way of thinking about signal processing for music," said Jay Rubinstein, a UW professor of otolaryngology and of bioengineering and a physician at the UW Medical Center in a news release. 

The pitch and timbre technique lets users help distinguish the recognition of various musical instruments something that standard cochlear implants don't have to offer.

"This is the first time anyone has demonstrated increased timbre perception using a different signal-processing system," said Rubinstein.

The findings are published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering.

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