A Semitone Out of Line

How did your 2022 start? Mine began with a miracle. Not a major one – at least, nothing that brought about anything new in my life. Just the restoration of my hearing.

Since the first day of the Christmas holidays, I’ve been plagued by the after effects of a bad head cold that went to my left ear and decided to wreak havoc there. My first week off was spent largely deaf on one side with a tinnitus so fierce it kept me up at night. It’s not often that an illness gets me down – I’m lucky enough to have a rather robust constitution that withstands most things, bar the seasonal pollen allergies that come around every summer. Personally, I thought I’d done pretty well to make it to the end of term without testing positive for COVID once, despite working in a school where children come and go every week. Perhaps this was the man upstairs showing his fickle hand, where fickleness is another word for fairness.

The tinnitus wasn’t so bad, after I got used to it. But it was what happened once the antibiotics had done their job that was the killer. For the best part of two weeks, everything sounded wrong. It took me a couple of days to realise what it was: the ear infection I had been through had left me with a case of diplacusis dysharmonica, a condition that warps the sounds that you perceive. In my case, while my right ear operated normally, my left ear perceived all sounds a semitone higher. For the musicians out there, I’ll let the ramifications of that sink for in a moment.

In most cases, this is a minor inconvenience and can be ignored a great deal more easily than any tinnitus. That is, unless you have perfect pitch.

It’s hard to talk about the uncanny ability to pluck exact notes and tunes out of the air without prompt without coming across as boasting at worst, or false modesty at best, so I won’t labour the point. What I will say is that, for somebody who notices the instant a piece of music is played in a key in which it was not originally played – even if the pitch has been shifted by a hair – hearing the world in two tones at once for a fortnight was nothing short of maddening. A quick browse of the internet will tell you that diplacusis dysharmonica seems to be especially painful for musicians.

What does it sound like? Try to imagine one of those cassettes you might have had when you were younger, after you rewound them once too often, or somebody (possibly a child) had played around with the spools. The sound eventually warped, keys were bent out of place and voices got the Alvin and the Chipmunks treatment. Now imagine that weird, unnatural effect playing alongside a perfectly functional version of the same audio. A long-winded analogy, but the first one that came to mind – chiefly because of the sheer number of cassettes I must have destroyed as a child before the era of Spotify and the repeat button.

Earphones and headphones were out, as they just exacerbated the problem; higher frequencies seemed to be the biggest triggers. I got into a habit of humming to myself in the morning, just to check, and each time I heard two notes come back to me instead of one. I’d give myself a pat on the back for being one of the few humans capable of singing a chord if I knew it wasn’t a) all in my head and b) an exceedingly ill-chosen chord consisting of two notes barely a semitone apart.

Like many of us, I imagine, I woke up this morning apprehensive about the new year ahead. 2021 was a rough year with just a few golden moments that made it one to remember: spending the summer with a dear friend in Edinburgh and a week in October with my beloved family in La Mancha rank right at the top. But with the sun in the morning comes hope, and hope is what I come back to when the world is dark.

By midday today, the distortion in my left ear had dimmed so much that it was hardly noticeable. By tomorrow, God willing, it may be gone altogether. I can’t begin to describe the feeling of putting a pair of headphones on and hearing music as it should be again, after two weeks of dissonance without resolution. I’ve had album after album of sevillanas by Raya Real on repeat ever since. There’s nothing quite like a sevillana to express reckless joy, and that’s exactly what I’m feeling right now. To quote Sweeney Todd: my arm is complete again.

It’s a shame it had to last from the first day of the holidays right up until the last, but I’m not complaining. I can hear the world again, as it should be. That’s more than enough for me.

BB x

NB. It’s been a while since I flexed my writing muscles. This year, I’m going to blow the dust off the blog and get back into a reasonably regular writing habit again. It’s been too long. Until then!

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