Aural diversity

We are part of a research network that has just been funded, focused around Aural diversity.

Aural Diversity arises from the observation that everybody hears differently. The assumption that we all possess a standard, undifferentiated pair of ears underpins most listening scenarios. Its the basis of many audio technologies, and has been a basis for much of our understanding of hearing and hearing perception. But the assumption is demonstrably incorrect, and taking it too far means that we miss out on many opportunities for advances in auditory science and audio engineering. We may well ask: whose ears are standard? whose ear has primacy? The network investigates the consequences of hearing differences in areas such as: music and performance, soundscape and sound studies, hearing sciences and acoustics, hearing care and hearing technologies, audio engineering and design, creative computing and AI, and indeed any field that has hearing or listening as a major component.

The term ‘auraldiversity’ echoes ‘neurodiversity’ as a way of distinguishing between ‘normal’ hearing, defined by BS ISO 226:2003 as that of a healthy 18-25 year-old, and atypical hearing (Drever 2018, ‘Primacy of the Ear’). This affects everybody to some degree. Each individual’s ears are uniquely shaped. We have all experienced temporary changes in hearing, such as when having a cold. And everybody goes through presbyacusis (age-related hearing loss) at varying rates after the teenage years.

More specific aural divergences are the result of an array of hearing differences or impairments which affect roughly 1.1 billion people worldwide (Lancet, 2013). These include noise-related, genetic, ototoxic, traumatic, and disorder-based hearing loss, some of which may cause full or partial deafness. However, “loss” is not the only form of impairment: auditory perceptual disorders such as tinnitus, hyperacusis and misophonia involve an increased sensitivity to sound.

And its been an issue in our research too. We’ve spent years developing automatic mixing systems that produce audio content like a sound engineer would (De Man et al 2017, ‘Ten Years of Automatic Mixing’). But to do that, we usually assume that there is a ‘right way’ to mix, and of course, it really depends on the listener, the listener’s environment, and many other factors. Our recent research has focused on developing simulators that allow anyone to hear the world as it really sounds to someone with hearing loss.

AHRC is funding the network for two years, beginning July 2021. The network is led by  Andrew Hugill of the University of Leicester. The core partners are the Universities of Leicester, Salford, Nottingham, Leeds, Goldsmiths, Queen Mary University of London (the team behind this blog), and the Attenborough Arts Centre. The wider network includes many more universities and a host of organisations concerned with hearing and listening.

The network will stage five workshops, each with a different focus:

  • Hearing care and technologies. How the use of hearing technologies may affect music and everyday auditory experiences.
  • Scientific and clinical aspects. How an arts and humanities approach might complement, challenge, and enhance scientific investigation.
  • Acoustics of listening differently. How acoustic design of the built and digital environments can be improved.
  • Aural diversity in the soundscape. Includes a concert featuring new works by aurally diverse artists for an aurally diverse audience.
  • Music and performance. Use of new technologies in composition and performance.

See http://auraldiversity.org for more details.