On Tuesday in MMTS023, we covered the basic biology of the auditory system. As a physics major, any sort of biology is NOT my speciality; one of the reasons I chose my specialty was because I did not need to include any biology classes to get my Bachelors. However, I found myself intrigued as we learned about how the outer ear, composed of the pinna and the auditory canal, could influence how we perceive sounds and, therefore, music. The auditory canal sends vibrations to the tympanic membrane, and the shape of the pinna both enhances the sensitivity of hearing and provides directional cues, particularly in the vertical plane.
I have a personal interest in the shape of my ears because when I was 13 years old, I had an otoplasty. For those of you who don’t know what it is, an otoplasty is a cosmetic surgery procedure that alters or enhances the appearance of one’s ears. The majority of people who undergo otoplasty are born with protruding ears, or prominotia. To fix this deformity, a piece of the pinna and the cartilage surrounding it are typically removed to achieve a more aesthetic shape and position for the ear. This is what I had done to fix my prominotia.
I was curious to find out if an otoplasty affected hearing because the surgery reshapes the pinna. I was too young to remember if my own hearing changed or not post-surgery, so I took to the internet to see if anyone had reported any hearing changes after undergoing an otoplasty. I stumbled upon an article in the US National Library of Medicine entitled “Can otoplasty impact hearing? A prospective randomized controlled study examining the effects of pinna position on speech reception and intelligibility”. The study, conducted by Michael McNeil, Steve Aiken, Manohar Bance, Jeff Leadbetter, and Paul Hong, aimed to “quantify the impact of pinna repositioning on speech intelligibility and reception” using a Hearing in Noise Test (or HINT) on adults with normal hearing and pinna positions (McNeil et al, 2013). The subjects underwent HINT four times: twice with the pinna in it’s natural position, and twice with the pinna in a forward position (made possible by using a band that pushed the ear into a more protruding position).
The researchers found that the participants’ Speech Intelligibility Index improved “significantly” when the pinna was in the forward position, or the position that otoplasty seeks to fix (McNeil et al, 2013). They concluded that the position of the pinna does, in fact, affect auditory performance for both speech intelligibility and reception of noise. This conclusion leads me to believe that otoplasty must, then, affect how a person perceives music. Of course, pinna position would not change listener context like genre preference and listening habits, but it could change how well someone can hear and digest the tone, melody, and lyrics of a song.
This is definitely something to consider if you or someone you know is considering a otoplasty.
If you want more information on the study, here is a link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3650943/
And if you would like more general info on otoplasty, here is the information page on the surgery by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons: https://www.plasticsurgery.org/cosmetic-procedures/ear-surgery