Cochlear implants (CIs) restore speech perception in quiet but they also eliminate or distort many acoustic cues that are important for music enjoyment. Unfortunately, quantifying music enjoyment by CI users has been difficult because comparisons must rely on their recollection of music before they lost their hearing. Here, we aimed to assess music enjoyment in CI users using a readily interpretable reference based on acoustic hearing. The comparison was done by testing “single-sided deafness” (SSD) patients who have normal hearing (NH) in one ear and a CI in the other ear. The study also aimed to assess binaural musical enjoyment, with the reference being the experience of hearing with a single NH ear. Three experiments assessed the effect of adding different kinds of input to the second ear: electrical, vocoded, or unmodified.
In experiment 1, music enjoyment in SSD-CI users was investigated using a modified version of the MUSHRA (MUltiple Stimuli with Hidden Reference and Anchor) method. Listeners rated their enjoyment of song segments on a scale of 0 to 200, where 100 represented the enjoyment obtained from a song segment presented to the NH ear, 0 represented a highly degraded version of the same song segment presented to the same ear, and 200 represented enjoyment subjectively rated as twice as good as the 100 reference. Stimuli consisted of acoustic only, electric only, acoustic and electric, as well as other conditions with low pass filtered acoustic stimuli. Acoustic stimulation was provided by headphone to the NH ear and electric stimulation was provided by direct audio input to the subject’s speech processor. In experiment 2, the task was repeated using NH listeners who received vocoded stimuli instead of electric stimuli. Experiment 3 tested the effect of adding the same unmodified song segment to the second ear, also in NH listeners.
Music presented through the CI only was very unpleasant, with an average rating of 20. Surprisingly, the combination of the unpleasant CI signal in one ear with acoustic stimulation in the other ear was rated more enjoyable (mean = 123) than acoustic processing alone. Presentation of the same monaural musical signal to both ears in NH listeners resulted with even greater enhancement of the experience compared with presentation to a single ear (mean = 159). Repeating the experiment using a vocoder to one ear of NH listeners resulted in interference rather than enhancement.
Music enjoyment from electric stimulation is extremely poor relative to a readily interpretable NH baseline for CI-SSD listeners. However, the combination of this unenjoyable signal presented through a CI and an unmodified acoustic signal presented to a NH (or near-NH) contralateral ear results in enhanced music enjoyment with respect to the acoustic signal alone. Remarkably, this two-ear enhancement experienced by CI-SSD listeners represents a substantial fraction of the two-ear enhancement seen in NH listeners. This unexpected benefit of electroacoustic auditory stimulation will have to be considered in theoretical accounts of music enjoyment and may facilitate the quest to enhance music enjoyment in CI users.