Hearing-Aid Squeal Grows in Volume as Concert Woe
Seattle Times 9/7/97
The concert you've paid $45 to hear has just begun, and
exquisite sounds are emerging from the Steinway on the stage.
Then you hear it. Eeeeeeeeeeeee. A very high-pitched sound
that's just present enough to be heard over the quieter passages
in the music. The sound is intermittent; on again, then off
again. Just at the point where the music begins to absorb you
totally again, there goes the phantom noise: Eeeeeeeeeee.
Where's it coming from? The air-conditioning system? Those
overhead microphones recording the concert? Or somewhere off to
the left, behind you?
A few heads turn in consternation, looking for the noise. The
noise-sensitive may begin to feel that the high-pitched squeal is
drilling right through their skulls. By now, the concert
presenters are ready to tear their programs in frustration.
It's another hearing aid, turned up just a little too high,
emitting feedback that can be heard all the way across a concert
hall - but not by the hearing aid's owner. And it's a real
problem in Seattle's smaller concert halls, where the noise is
more easily heard in an intimate space. It's enough of a problem
that at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival's "Piano Spectacular"
this summer, festival artistic director Toby Saks made a pre-
intermission announcement from the stage, tactfully pleading with
the owner and/or adjoining neighbors of the hearing aid to turn
it down because the sound was interfering with the live recording
The plea, incidentally, went unanswered. The hearing aid went on
emitting the same intermittent sound (though the sheer volume of
the second half, Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" for two
pianists, finally wiped out any other ambient noise).
The hearing-aid noise is a growing problem that I've ignored in
print for a long time, mainly because I understand how important
hearing aids are to those who need them. Some of my nearest and
dearest family members rely on them. So do several friends who
love music but don't have the hearing acuity they once had.
So, in fact, does the technical director of one of the region's
finest acoustical spaces, Meany Theater. John Poulson wears
hearing aids - and he also is aware of the increasing audience
complaints about hearing-aid noise in concerts.
"Next to back pain, hearing impairment is one of the fastest-
growing medical problems," Poulson explains.
"Most people who wear hearing aids have lost the high end of the
sound spectrum, which means they can't hear the feedback noise.
I'm one of them. My hearing aids can be on my desk, covered by a
piece of paper, and people around me will ask where the high-
pitched noise is coming from - but it's totally (inaudible) to
me. "The noise is just feedback. If you've ever heard a
microphone turned up too high, you've heard the same phenomenon."
As the baby-boomer population moves into middle age, hearing
aids will increasingly become a fact of concert life. But many
health professionals have even greater fears for many of those
under 30, who have been plugged into high-volume headsets since
puberty. Rock aficionados who have been attending heavy-metal
concerts that deliver sound at paint-peeling volumes also are at
risk for developing hearing loss.
"What were human ears designed to hear?" Poulson asks.
"Go to the Methow Valley, and listen. The wind blowing through
trees and grass. That's what we were designed to hear."
Instead, today we have heavy machinery, traffic, rock concerts,
blaring TVs, airplane noise, car-stereo systems that make the
whole street shudder as they drive by. We have a noise level that
shortens the ear's hearing spectrum, and shortens the temper as
well, as there are more of us packed into increasingly limited
At an acoustic (unamplified) concert, where you're already
listening intently, unwanted sound can be a tremendous problem.
The visual equivalent, perhaps, might be sitting in a darkened
theater, watching a play or a movie, and having small flashlight
beams occasionally directed right into your eyes.
You can shut your eyes - but it's hard to shut your ears.
What's the answer? Most major concert halls and theaters in the
Seattle area have hearing-enhancement systems, where a headset
that picks up infrared sound may be borrowed for the duration of
the performance. I've tried them in the Opera House, and they
deliver wonderful, immediate sound that you can turn up or down
as you like. Poulson says they're in widespread use in the big
theaters, such as the 5th Avenue, but less so at unamplified
concerts (i.e., classical music).
"On a busy night," he says, "I might have two requests for our
hearing-enhancement equipment (at Meany)."
No one is quite sure why the headsets aren't more popular at
Maybe it's because people who attend concerts (as opposed to
theater events, in which a staged visual presentation is a more
major part of the evening) are more sensitive about hearing
impairment. Maybe not enough has been done to publicize the
headsets or to make them available.
In any case, hearing impairment shouldn't spell an end to
concert-going, any more than visual impairment means you can't go
to the art museum anymore. That's why we have eyeglasses, contact
lenses - and hearing aids. Music lovers who have a greater
hearing impairment still can enjoy concerts by the Seattle Men's
Chorus, where Kevin Gallagher interprets the words into sign
What to do if you're at a concert and you realize that the
person next to you has a noisy hearing aid? Usually, adjusting
the hearing aids slightly will correct the squealing noise, but
the wearer first has to know that the noise is being emitted.
Poulson suggests a tactful mention from those seated beside the
wearer, at the first break in the music, that a noise may be
coming from the hearing aid. Usually, people are happy to correct
the situation and unlikely to take offense - though it's always
possible that someone might be offended.
It's a tough call; a tough situation. Clearly, good sense is
needed; Boston violinist Arturo Delmoni recently attended a
concert that was being recorded live, with a pre-concert
announcement that asked listeners to turn their hearing aids off,
rousing some to rightful wrath.
Seattle Opera's Speight Jenkins, who was a music critic in New
York before becoming general director of the opera, remembers a
concert at Carnegie Hall when conductor Erich Leinsdorf walked
off the stage, refusing to conduct because of a particularly loud
hearing-aid noise in a particularly quiet piece. Jenkins says the
noise "hasn't been an issue in the Opera House as far as I know -
knock on wood."