When I woke up on Monday my left ear – the one implanted since 2001 – sounded different. Gritty, hollow. My voice sounded remote and thin. When I moved a soda can on my coffee table, it made a tinny sound.

I pondered that as I brushed my teeth. Sometimes the ear abruptly sounds different, and it either slowly returns to “normal” or I adjust to it. I’ve never figured out why. I’ve learned not to worry about it.

But the timing was odd. I’d heard stories – just rumors, really – that when a person goes bilateral, the original ear gets worse for a while. Why, no one seems to know.

And here I was, four days post, with a left ear that suddenly sounded gritty and hollow.

The ear had taken a beating in the past four days. Every keystroke and every phoneme going into the new right ear had made the left one ring for several seconds afterward. Typing my name, M-I-K-E, sounded like this:

tap-bing tap-bing tap-bing tap-bingggggggg

And the right ear, the new one, was massively overstimulated. Every night when I took off the processors both ears were howling. Roaring sounds, rushing sounds, bits and scraps of music.

Could it be, I wondered, that the left ear was simply tired?

I shouldered my backpack and walked down to my office. Not knowing what my nervous system was up to. My body was changing on me, in obscure ways. My footsteps sounded heavy and dull in the rain.

I work in a converted Victorian flat turned into a minature warren of writers’ offices. It’s always been a hard environment for listening, with high ceilings, narrow hallways, and wooden floors. How would I do today?

Badly, it turned out. I visited Scott James in his office and missed two words in the very first sentence he said to me. Diane Weipert came by and I found myself skidding against her words, unable to find footing in them. When people were hanging out in the kitchen I stayed in my office, bewildered and confused. How could this be happening after my spectacular successes in cafes on Thursday and Saturday?

At the end of the day I stopped by Diane’s office. “Those headphones I loaned you,” I said. “Can I have them back?” They were high-quality headphones I’d gotten some time ago, but they hadn’t done much for me.

At home I looked at my CD player and thought, I might as well plug them in and see what happens.

I put my left processor on Fidelity 120 and turned the right one way up. Gingerly, I put the headphones on. They fit snugly over both processors. The headpieces stuck out: from the back, it probably looked like they were trying to escape.

I got into bed. Elvis hopped up and settled down with his front paws on my left ankle.

I chose a classical CD with Debussy’s Clair de lune – two instruments only, oboe and harp. It was a slow, meandering piece, tones and glissades. I could feel the right ear feeding me the soundstream. I took off the left headpiece to isolate the right: yes, it was working. It didn’t sound as limpid and clear as the left, but it was giving me music, mirroring the left.

Mirroring? Actually, no, I realized. The headphones were shifting the sound intensities back and forth between them, playing off of each other.


And I was caught up in it: following the contours of the piece, its wholeness, its probing of the emotional resonances of sound; a moonlit glade with the stars wheeling overhead.

“It sounds lovely,” I breathed.


It held my attention the way a good story does. I listened to it three more times, once with only the right, once only with the left, then once with both again. Disassembling and reassembling the piece.

If it sounded this good to me, what must it sound like to a person with normal ears?

The next piece was Sibelius’s Valse triste, and I heard its ominous undercurrent – the shifty rhythm beating underneath the strings.

I moved on to Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, which I’d heard many times before. Now, though, I realized that listening to it with one ear had been as pointless as walking down the aisle alone.

That’s because music reaches into you and works on your brain. And to do it, it needs to work with all of the brain. Hearing music with only one ear engages only half of the brain. And half is not enough. It just isn’t.

The March is about twos and joys, climaxes and beginnings. I thought of my friend Joe’s wedding to his wife Heather, and of how her beige gown swirled as she danced on the floor, and of the joy they and I felt that day. I welled up a bit, to my surprise. But that’s what music is supposed to do. Hearing it in both ears was like the difference between a live and a dead body: the form was the same, but the experience was oh so different.

And then I ate the rest of the CD. I listened to all of it: Brahms, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky. Well, actually, I left the 1812 Overture for another day because it was three o’clock in the morning. I took my processors off, stuck the batteries in the charger, and went to sleep.

I learned more about music in one day than I had in the past thirty years.

The next day, I did a lot better in the office. I think it was the echoes that had confused me: I hadn’t heard reverb in both ears in decades.

And I discovered that I was hearing much less of the bing in my left ear. But that’s another story.


  1. “Every night when I took off the processors both ears were howling. Roaring sounds, rushing sounds, bits and scraps of music”– I get these sounds too, except my second implant hasn’t been turned on yet. But, it has happened and my educated guess it the nerves, which are still intact are stimulating. So, I ask you this, why is it at times it makes howling noises, and other times not? Or, how did the brain pick up on it, when we have “deaf ears” as in we’re not supposed to be hearing anything without the processors.

  2. After 18 months as a “sequential bilateral” implantee, I still get the feeling that the “first ear” is weaker than the “second ear.” Test scores don’t bear this out for me, but psychologically, I still feel this to be true. It’s interesting.

    I’m not a science writer, so I have written this all off as “my ears each having distinct personalities.” At the end of the day, they are working together, and that’s what counts. Battery life in the second ear has gotten shorter as I have re-MAPped its processor over time, so the newer ear must still be growing and adjusting.

    The University of Iowa has just begun a new study on “sequential bilateral implantees,” and they are doing all sorts of fun tests on localization of sound, pitch perception, recognition of speech in noise, and music. As far as I know, subjects have CIs from all of the major manufacturers.

  3. At least I know I am not going crazy!!!! I have felt that way since activation in August. It seems my ears are in harmony with each other, but separately the sounds are not clear or crisp. My right ear seems to have more clarity instead of the left. Which is very strange because my right ear only had 1% hearing compared to the left at 17%. Just like Jon I think the same with one ear being weaker.

    I am so excited about the music. It just adds something so special to our world. The harmonies, beats and melodies. It gives such joy. I am hung up on music from the 80’s – my high school music. Enjoy!!!!

    I am interested in the new study – if you find out anything please post it.


  4. This makes a lot of sense. Sounds like you are ready for a new map! Glad you are hearing good. I love listening on the phone and to music with my headphones.

    Can’t wait to hear more!

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