To Play, Dance, and Listen with Hearing Loss

Lost and Sound Explores the Intersection of Music and Hearing Loss

10-year-old Holly practicing piano in her living room. A still from the documentary Lost and Sound.
When Holly lost her hearing at 14 months old, her parents—intensely musical themselves—worried that their daughter might have to live her life without full access to music. Her mother broke down in tears upon listening to Liszt on the radio because she wasn’t sure if Holly would be able to appreciate his music when she was older. Holly’s mother even stopped playing music for a long time to avoid the feelings of dread and anxiety it brought.

But a decade later, listening to Holly play Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood on the piano with such confidence, sensitivity, and skill, you would have no idea that she had cochlear implants, let alone that she was only about 10 years old at the time of filming. Of her hearing loss, the wise-beyond-her-years Holly says, “It’s not really a big deal. It’s not like I’m the only one in the world.”

Holly’s is one of the featured stories in Lost and Sound, a documentary that I had the privilege of seeing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City this past April. World-premiered at South by Southwest in 2012, the film addresses deafness, hearing loss, and music using personal stories, performances, science, and visualizations.

The UK-based filmmaker, Lindsey Dryden, is deaf in one ear herself, having lost her hearing in her right ear at the age of three. After being diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, she learned that her left ear was also at risk of damage from the disease. She began to think about the possibility of going deaf in both ears and what she would miss the most—music—and decided to create a film about how some people experience this intersection of music and hearing loss or deafness.

The other two main subjects of the film are Emily, a young dancer who was born deaf and wears cochlear implants, and Nick, a music writer who experienced sudden hearing loss in his right ear during adulthood. Besides allowing audience members to connect with at least one of these three distinct personalities, Lost and Sound brings us scientific explanations and visual and audio representations of how humans process sound. The result is a fascinating, educational, insightful experience for anyone curious about music and hearing.

As a modern dancer at a prestigious art school, Emily has a profound relationship with music. With cochlear implants as her only medium for receiving sound, she may not be able to distinguish pitch or timbre easily, but the timing of music is never an issue—she can move to the beat.

And move she does, with thrilling emotion and agility. Emily’s love of dancing stems from the feeling that it “makes the rest of the world disappear.” Dance is one major area of her life in which she doesn’t have to struggle to communicate.

Since he is a music journalist, Nick’s sudden hearing loss came as a terrifying blow to his music-centric life. Aside from the shock of the experience and the permanent damage to his inner ear, he deals with extreme tinnitus (all kinds of loud sounds in his head) and hyperacusis (a sensitivity to and distortion of noises around him), making listening to music a difficult, painful task.

Throughout the course of the film, Nick learns more about the pathways of sound from his ears to his brain, and he exercises patience in finding new ways to hear and appreciate music. A scientist works with him to determine that his brain is actually rewiring itself as he relearns the complex process of listening to music.

These three real-life stories are completely different from each other, proving that there is no single experience of hearing loss or deafness for musicians and music lovers. What the film demonstrates is that each of these people with a hearing loss or deafness not only enjoys music, but treasures it and draws from it as a fundamental part of life.

Next on GRAND PIANO PASSION™, an interview with Lost and Sound filmmaker Lindsey Dryden.

Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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