The technique can enable users to perceive differences between musical instruments, a significant improvement from what standard cochlear implants offer, lead researcher Les Atlas, a professor of electrical engineering, said.
"Right now, cochlear-implant subjects do well when it's quiet and there is a single person talking, but with music, noisy rooms or multiple people talking, it's difficult to hear," Atlas said. "We are on the way to solving the issue with music."
A cochlear implant is a small electronic device with one piece placed on the skin behind the ear and another portion surgically inserted under the skin to stimulate the auditory nerve, bypassing damaged portions of the ear.
In a study of the new signal coding technology, eight cochlear-implant users could distinguish between musical instruments much more accurately than with the standard devices, the researchers said.
The UW scientists said they've developed a new way to process the sounds of musical melodies and notes, which tend to be more complex than speech, to allow cochlear-implant users to detect pitch and timbre in songs.
"With cochlear implants, we've always been oriented more toward speech sounds," researcher Jay Rubinstein, a professor of otolaryngology and of bioengineering, said. "This strategy represents a different way of thinking about signal processing for music."