Most of us understand that we each see the world differently. But, have you thought about how we hear the world differently? 2020 marks the 250th birthday of Beethoven, a composer famous for both his originality and his hearing loss. Beethoven’s “hearing difference” — both his hearing loss and his ability to hear and create music — changed the world. And, it’s a good reminder that our “hearing differences” help make our diverse world a better place.

Beethoven’s “hearing difference”

The great composer’s struggle with hearing loss is well documented, even if the extent of his hearing loss (not quite total deafness) is still debated. But his other “hearing difference,” his ability to hear the world musically and compose great symphonies, remains unquestioned. Perhaps you have heard the call of the common brown wren. Using his “hearing difference,” Beethoven transformed this simple birdsong into his unforgettable 5th symphony. The composer’s wide range — a testament to his “hearing difference” — also includes the gentle (but passionate) “Moonlight Sonata” and the full-voiced “Ode to Joy” of his 9th and final symphony.

A black and white image of hands playing string instruments (a string quartet.)

Edoardo Saccenti found that Beethoven’s hearing loss affected his music in unexpected and positive ways. Increasing hearing loss meant that Beethoven could no longer hear higher/softer notes as clearly. So, his later music tends to feature lower-frequency sounds. These sounds make his music darker, richer, and more commanding — not to mention a bit louder. Other composers of his day avoided these lower, darker sounds. So, Beethoven had to innovate. As one performer put it, his hearing loss “gave him more freedom. Because he was not as attached to the physical sound, he used his imagination.” (See the full article published in the British Medical Journal.) Thus, his works became unusual, original and exciting. And, it changed Western music forever.

The hearing difference in others

Unique ways of hearing the world affect other artists, too. For example, ArchDaily.com emphasizes that sound design is crucial to good architecture. TheSpaces.com provides a virtual tour of “10 buildings with extraordinary acoustics.” From the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul’s Cathedral (UK) to the forest megaphones of Estonia, it’s worth checking out.

In the world of broadcast media and film, Jack Foley used his “hearing difference” to pioneer the art of sound effects. Today’s sound effects professionals are still called “Foley Artists.” John Roesch from Lucasfilm created the famous sounds found in epic adventure movies from E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark to Interstellar and Frozen. The magical, otherworldly sounds now familiar to moviegoers everywhere, came directly from Roesch’s ability to hear things differently. (Incidentally, John Williams seems clearly influenced by Beethoven when composing the film scores for E.T. and Star Wars.)

Hearing differently, together

All of these hearing differences certainly make the world a diverse, interesting, and entertaining place. And now, these differences are bringing us closer together.

A young Asian man watches and listens to his mobile dive while using modern earbuds. Consider the modern earbud. These tiny marvels use the same principles of science (and art) developed by musicians, architects, and filmmakers over centuries. They also use the same technologies as a modern hearing aid. In fact, the latest earbuds can work as hearing aids for those with mild to moderate hearing loss. That means the very same devices can be used by those with “perfect” hearing and those with hearing loss to enjoy Beethoven’s 5th (or Rhiannon Giddens’ “Wayfarin’ Stranger”). And it means all of us are sharing in the experience of hearing, regardless of our “hearing difference.”

Hearing the future

At Akoio, we’re very conscientious about using terms like “hearing impairment” and even “hearing loss.” While we must acknowledge our hearing differences, no one should feel “less than” someone else just because they hear differently. As Beethoven showed us, hearing differently can be a gift.

With technology and understanding, we can change the conversation. Instead of “impairment” or “loss,” perhaps we can embrace the “hearing difference” in each of us. We can recognize that we need every voice and every ear — even if those voices and ears communicate with the assistance of an earbud/hearing aid, or speak and hear silently through signing. We can see and celebrate the “hearing differences” created by culture, race, gender, and other diversity. As we welcome and share those differences, we’re bound to make the world’s most beautiful music yet.

Founded by President & CEO Bill Schiffmiller, Akoio is dedicated to providing products and services tailored to the needs of people with hearing loss. A life-long hearing aid user and hearing wellness advocate, Bill was the former Accessibility Advocate for Apple, Inc., and received his Master of Professional Studies degree in Design Management at Pratt Institute.