Hard of Hearing and Learning Piano

Question: I am hard of hearing… not really bad… but enough that I cannot hear very high soft sounds. I really want to learn to play but everyone keeps telling me that it is impossible. Wasn’t Beethoven deaf? Besides leaning his ear on the piano, how did he bring out the beauty in his notes? Please advise me as to how I should learn.

– Joanne (USA)

Albert’s reply: The piano only goes up to about 4 kHz (kilohertz). Perfect human hearing ranges from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. If the piano were extended by another two octaves, it still wouldn’t quite reach 20 kHz. (The frequency spectrum is logarithmic with base 2, meaning that frequency doubles with each octave.)

I don’t know the nature of your hearing loss, which may affect some frequencies in the middle of the frequency spectrum. Most often, it is the very high frequencies that are affected.

For example, if you couldn’t hear the last octave of the human auditory frequency spectrum, you’d be able to hear up to 10 kHz. If you couldn’t hear the last two octaves, you’d be able to hear up to 5 kHz. You’d still be able to hear all the notes on a piano, as well as the full range of all orchestral instruments, though you’d be missing the overtones of the highest notes.

It’s impossible to say in any detail without hearing you in person, but I encourage you to learn piano despite your hearing loss. I recommend finding a local teacher who can help you one-on-one. You could learn the relative dynamics of notes by getting expert feedback, and play music accordingly.

Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie is the most inspiring example alive. She was diagnosed as profoundly deaf by the age of 12. Profound deafness is the highest audiological category for hearing loss, even more severe than severe deafness. Yet she went on to become the world’s first solo percussionist!

Beethoven’s case was different. He experienced his first symptoms of deafness at the age of 24, the very year he started his professional career and published his first opus. Later, he became almost totally deaf.

Beethoven was able to continue composing (but not performing, with some unfortunate attempts) because of his awe-inspiring musicianship. His ear training skills were so perfect that he no longer needed to hear music externally. He internalized the music and could hear every single note, with each instrument in full detail, in his mind’s ear.

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