Composing Music for 'Tin' Ears A composer suffering from a hearing problem mimics it in a new musical piece called Tinnitus Quartet. Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr talks with composer Brent Michael Davids about the constant ringing in his ear — and how he's translated it musically for his audience.
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Composing Music for 'Tin' Ears

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Composing Music for 'Tin' Ears

Composing Music for 'Tin' Ears

Composing Music for 'Tin' Ears

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A composer suffering from a hearing problem mimics it in a new musical piece called Tinnitus Quartet. Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr talks with composer Brent Michael Davids about the constant ringing in his ear — and how he's translated it musically for his audience.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Brent Michael Davids has been a composer of classical music for 30 years, but one of his most recent works is unlike anything he's written before. It's an intensely personal piece called "Tinnitus Quartet." In it, Davids tries to convey to the audience his experience with a particularly frustrating condition. NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr reports.

JEFFREY FREYMANN-WEYR reporting:

People with tinnitus (pronounced TINnitis) or tinnitus (pronounced tinEYEtis) hear a ringing in their ears or a crackling sound or a whooshing like the wind when nothing external is making the noise. A few years ago, composer Brent Michael Davids was camping when he made a startling discovery.

Mr. BRENT MICHAEL DAVIDS (Composer): I was laying on the ground on my side, sleeping, and I noticed how quiet it was, and then I turned over--rolled over to the other side so my other ear was exposed, and then I heard crickets.

FREYMANN-WEYR: The ear that was not hearing the crickets was actually hearing a ringing tone in the same high range. His brain was suppressing both sounds in that ear.

Mr. DAVIDS: But once I heard it then I realized that I did have tinnitus. I had a ringing in--it's there, even though sometimes I can ignore it and sometimes I can't.

(Soundbite of music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: He wanted to write a piece of music that would give audiences an idea of what it's like to have tinnitus. The Miro String Quartet performed the world premiere of Brent Michael Davids' "Tinnitus Quartet" this fall at the University of Texas at Austin, where they're in residence. The quartet and the university commissioned the work. Throughout almost all of the 18-minute piece, the four members of the quartet take turns playing the high A that Davids constantly hears in his right ear. Violinist Sandy Yamamoto says so far the response has been strong, if varied.

Ms. SANDY YAMAMOTO (Violinist, Miro String Quartet): Some people really like it. Other people are really distracted by the fact that there's this A going through the whole piece. But his whole thought was to have a chance for the audience to experience what a tinnitus sufferer experiences every day. Yamamoto herself has a mild case of tinnitus in her right ear. Dr. Marshall Chasin is director of auditory research at the Musicians' Clinics of Canada and affiliated with the American Tinnitus Association. He says anyone who has ever heard a ringing in their ears after a loud concert has experienced a temporary tinnitus. But for many others, the sound doesn't go away.

Dr. MARSHALL CHASIN (Director, Auditory Research, Musicians' Clinics of Canada): Tinnitus that is bothersome to the point of being noticed and as being part of their everyday life, certainly you're looking at 10 million Americans. But this figure is a little bit misleading in that some people can have tinnitus and not really mention it to anyone. So it's sometimes called the invisible handicap. It's there, but people kind of grit and bear it.

FREYMANN-WEYR: And composer Davids says he's glad the performances of the piece so far have helped make tinnitus more understandable to those who don't have it.

Mr. DAVIDS: I've had a couple of, you know, husbands come up to me and say that they can finally show their wives what it is that they're experiencing in their mind, in their ears, and they've never been able to explain it before but now they can, because their wives sat in the audience and listened to the work and they have, you know, a little window into what it's like.

FREYMANN-WEYR: This is the 10th anniversary season for the Miro Quartet and on the same concerts with "Tinnitus Quartet" they play two other works written by composers coping with hearing difficulties. Both Ludwig van Beethoven and Bedrich Smetana wrote music well into the time that they were entirely deaf.

(Soundbite of music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: And although it can't be known for certain if Smetana had tinnitus as he was losing his hearing, the string quartet he wrote called "From My Life" famously depicts the moment he realized that he was going deaf with a note that sounds like ringing in an ear.

(Soundbite of music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: After discovering his tinnitus while camping that day, Brent Michael Davids learned more about the sometimes counterintuitive ways the brain copes with hearing disorders. He's found that listening to a continuous recording of crickets helps block out the frequency of his tinnitus. Audiologist Dr. Marshall Chasin says, whether it's sounds of nature or white noise or even just an audio boost from a hearing aid, outside sounds can help lessen the effect of the phantom sounds the brain is producing.

Dr. CHASIN: Masking of tinnitus is something that has been the mainstay of our clinical approach for, oh, for 35, 40 years anyway. We do know that external or extraneous sounds can cover over or mask the tinnitus and people are much less bothered by these external sounds.

FREYMANN-WEYR: And, Dr. Chasin says, since stress and anxiety can make the tinnitus louder, being able to accept it can help reduce its intensity.

(Soundbite of music)

FREYMANN-WEYR: Davids symbolizes his acceptance of tinnitus in his piece by having the musicians imitate cricket sounds, blending with the tinnitus tone, until they all disappear.

(Soundbite from "Tinnitus Quartet")

FREYMANN-WEYR: Miro cellist Joshua Gindele says that the audience revels in the long silence that follows the piece, waiting to applaud, feeling as though when the tone ends a weight has been lifted from them.

Mr. JOSHUA GINDELE (Cellist, Miro String Quartet): Hearing silence after this, you know--20 minutes of hearing this tone is really poignant for me.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. GINDELE: And it really does give me an idea and, really, I do value my ability to hear so much more when I finally get silence at the end of the work.

FREYMANN-WEYR: The Miro Quartet will be including this program when they travel to Japan in December. They've recently released a recording of the complete early string quartets of Beethoven. Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR News.

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