Music’s Architecture after Sudden Hearing Loss

An Excerpt from Nick Coleman's The Train in the Night

Nick Coleman, author of The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss.

Train_in_the_Night_ColemanEditor’s Note: Twenty-five years into his career as a music writer, Nick Coleman was getting into bed one night when he heard a “pffffff” and found himself faced with sudden hearing loss in one ear, accompanied by raucous tinnitus and hypersensitivity to noise. Listening to music, once his lifeblood, became painful. He ended up writing a memoir—The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss—on developing his lifelong obsession with music while growing up in England, and how sudden hearing loss changed it all; the following excerpt provides a taste.

* * * *

What I hear now when I listen to music is a flat, two-dimensional representation: flat as in literally flat, like a sheet of paper with lines on it. Where I used to get buildings, I now only get architectural drawings. I can interpret what the drawings show, but I don’t get the actual structure: I can’t enter music and I can’t perceive its inner spaces. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never got much of an emotional hit from technical drawings. This is what really hurts: I no longer respond to music emotionally.

* * * *

I dared not listen to my favourite music for fear of what I might hear.

I began to do little experiments on myself. I dared not listen to my favourite music for fear of what I might hear (imagine: Exile on Main St as a technical drawing; Miles Davis as a papery squiggle . . . No, don’t even think about it), but I kept up a steady drip of new and potentially interesting (quiet) music into my one good ear, just on the off-chance that something might happen. And on 11 November I slithered downstairs to watch the Remembrance Day broadcast from the Cenotaph.

I always watch it. I love the Cenotaph ritual. In particular, I get off on the Guards’ stacked ‘Nimrod’, followed by ‘When I Am Laid in Earth’ (from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas) and the ‘Beethoven’ Funeral March: grey greatcoats, deep trombones, utter stillness. Gets me every single time. So every year I watch and wait for ‘Nimrod’s’ unfailing impact on my metabolism, fascinated by the serpentine passage of emotion through my body from its bed in the pit of my stomach, slow as a Guardsman’s dead march. It’s an extraordinary sensation, made all the more so because of its complete and utter predictability.

Before a single Guardsman had so much as licked his mouthpiece, I was in a flood of tears.

So I switched on and sat there, bricking it. What if nothing happened? What if nothing happened and then I faked it? What if I faked it from the start, automatically, like some actor getting off on his own personal drama? But as it turned out I didn’t have to fake a thing. David Dimbleby had only to intone ‘And now, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations . . .’ and I was off. Before a single Guardsman had so much as licked his mouthpiece, I was in a flood of tears. Real tears.

Yes, of course I was in mourning for my lost hearing. But also, more than that, quite clearly my psyche was not going to run the risk of me being unable to feel a thing in the face of music of such unswerving dolour. But that wasn’t the interesting thing. What was really interesting was that, as I sat there shuddering and trickling, I began to hear the music better. Melody, a metre, a little bit of timbre, the puffiest cloud of harmony. Yes, yes: that’s a trombone all right, not just a note. And I began to sense the tiniest swelling of architectural form in my head. You wouldn’t have called it the Taj Mahal, but equally, this was no papery squiggle.

Copyright © 2013 by Nick Coleman from The Train in the Night. Used by permission of Counterpoint.

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


  1. I have been deaf in one ear all or most of my life. (diagnosed in elementary school) I have never heard music in full stereo fidelity, so your description of losing that ability is fascinating. I could somehow tell that there was a difference when my parents bought a new ” stereo” record player but I couldn’t explain what the difference was then. I gradually lost some hearing in my good ear and quit listening to music altogether until I started wearing a hearing aid. Over the years with improvements in hearing aids and the brain’s wonderful ability to grow and change, I now play cello with a local orchestra. Being in the “middle” of the music helps with some of the loss but I will never experience the full effect.
    I enjoy live concerts much more than anything recorded because it is the closest I can come to hearing all of the sounds.
    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Thank you for sharing yours. Delighted to hear that you have made progress. Here’s one more peculiar thing that might interest you: the first music I felt comfortable with, a couple of years after the initial loss, was via mono reproduction of a mono recording. It just seemed more focal and musical than its stereo equivalent. Less blurred. So my wife bought me a repro Dansette for Christmas that year and I embarked on the epic re-exploration of my (stereo) record collection in low-fi mono. Much, much better. Still no ‘architecture’, but much more musical. A couple more years after that I had learned to make sense of stereo by, I can only surmise, my brain developing the capacity for translating a stereo-reproduced signal back into mono – I now hear everything clearly (as long as it’s not too loud) and in what I can only describe as artificial mono. I still prefer real mono but I am more than happy to live with my own contrived version. Unlike you, however, I still get confused when ‘immersed’. Thrilled but confused. I just can’t do in media res, yet. But Linda, if you’re getting a musical hit, whatever its ‘format’, hang on to that and enjoy it for what it is, for what the hit is doing for you. The rest is all effect, smoke and mirrors. You aren’t missing all that much. Really.

  2. I started losing my hearing gradually in my right ear when I was 30. I stopped listening to music until I discovered One Good Ear Bud – a headphone which plays stereo sound into your one ‘good ear’ : (I used to be a freelance indie music journalist – but this is not what caused my hearing loss.)

    Sadly for me, I have since suffered sudden deafness in what was my ‘good’ ear and, even with my Bi CROS aids, I don’t enjoy music very much. I can’t bear to listen to any new music but when I listen to songs I know well, I find I can just about tolerate them. I couldn’t bear to go to a live concert now as I am very sensitive to loud sounds.

    Sadly, I can’t find a portable device that goes loud enough for me to use my One Good Ear Bud now for my one ‘duff but still slightly functioning’ ear.

    I am intrigued by your comments about listening to mono music though and will see if this works for me. Thanks for sharing the tip.

  3. I lost most of my hearing in my right ear on 6/15/14 at 630pm while at work. SSNHL straight out of the blue! I was devastated for days at first. I did the steroid injections and got some of my hearing back but i have zero speech recognition now. My ear sounds like a blown tweeter. No low frequencies for me anymore and probably 5% total hearing at best. I am a singer/songwriter/musician and refuse to give up! I know exactly what you mean by the flat versus 3D sound.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. I was sorry to learn about how you lost so much of your hearing earlier this year. That must have been a devastating experience. Good luck with your singing and songwriting–very inspiring to know you will not give up!

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