When You Have a Cochlear Impant, You Experience Music VERY Differently. Here’s How

For those who are deaf, music is not just about sound. At age 20, Rachel Kolb received cochlear implants that gave her partial hearing. In virtual reality, experience how music felt for her, before and after.

When I got a cochlear implant seven years ago, after being profoundly deaf for my entire life, hearing friends and acquaintances started asking me the same few questions: Had I heard music yet? Did I like it? What did it sound like?

I was 20 years old then. Aside from the amplified noises I’d heard through my hearing aids, which sounded more like murmurs distorted by thick insulation swaddling, I had never heard music, not really. But that did not mean I wasn’t in some way musical. I played piano and guitar as a child, and I remember enjoying the feel of my hands picking out the piano keys in rhythm, as well as the rich vibrations of the guitar soundboard against my chest. I would tap out a beat to many other daily tasks, too.

For several years, I became privately obsessed with marching in rhythm when walking around the block, counting out my steps like a metronome: One, two. One, two. Watching visual rhythms, from the flow of water to clapping hands and the rich expression of sign language, fascinated me. But in the hearing world, those experiences often didn’t count as music. And I gathered that my inability to hear music, at least in the view the people I knew, seemed unthinkable.

“So you can’t hear the beautiful music right now?” I remember someone asking me when I was an undergraduate. We sat in a restaurant where, presumably, some ambient melody played in the background. When I said no, she replied, “Wow, that makes me feel sad.”

Sad. This is how some hearing people reacted to my imagined lifetime without music. Did it mean that some part of my existence was unalterably sad, too? I resisted this response. My life was already beautiful and rich without music, just different. And even if listening to music did not yet feel like a core part of my identity, I could be curious.