FHSR Associate Director and Author – EmilyAnn Duffley

Did you know that cochlear implant users perceive pitch in an entirely different way than normal hearing listeners? This can sometimes make it difficult for people with cochlear implants to appreciate the melody of music or understand tone of voice. Let’s put this into an analogy on the piano. 

Pretend that all the keys on the piano represent the normal hearing range. 

People with normal hearing can distinguish all of the different sounds that each of these 88 keys make thanks to the basilar membrane inside the cochlea. (A video illustrating how the basilar membrane functions is linked here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HC4H93V-I7A)

Cochlear implant users however hear through electric pulses which happen near the basilar membrane inside the cochlea. These pulses can make certain ranges of pitches all sound the same. That means that one electrode pulse can represent all of the pitches in, let’s say, an octave. So while normal hearing listeners may perceive all of the individual notes within the octave, the cochlear implant user would hear all of the notes within the octave as the same note. 

Normal hearing range in octaves :

All pitches in each octave are funneled into one pitch for cochlear implant users, as illustrated below.

Because of these differences in hearing pitch, many cochlear implant users prefer to listen to music that is percussive with less of an emphasis on melody. 

Anatomically, the cochlear implant and the hearing mechanism are a little more complicated than the piano, but I hope this gives you a framework for understanding cochlear implant pitch perception.