Only Human | Podcast Review | November 4, 2015 | By

Only Human: “A Deaf Composer Holds Out for Science”

Jay is a musician and composer; he has been since childhood. But for several years now, he’s been going deaf.

This week’s 29-minute long episode of Only Human discusses a topic that I (and, probably, most people) take for granted: the ability to hear.

Host Mary Harris hands the mic over to Amanda, who is narrating the story of composer Jay Alan Zimmerman (doesn’t he just sound like a composer?). Amanda describes Jay as a musician since childhood, a man who grew up knowing he would make it in the industry. Slowly, however, Jay’s hearing started falling away. It was unexplained, and unprompted. Jay put off accepting the fact that he was a composer who was going deaf.

Then, on a day that changed the lives of many in various ways, Jay went almost completely deaf. On September 11, 2001, Jay was sitting in his apartment that happened to be fairly close to the Twin Towers. While a lot of other buildings’ windows shattered, his swung inward, creating a pressure that was untenable for his ears.

Jay attempted to change careers, but he was always led back to music. He uses his imagination and his memory to create sounds, but ultimately, his hearing is gone. He is still able to speak, and is an adept lip reader.

Jay has a lot of humor when he is talking about his situation. He is lighthearted and understanding, and never asks ‘why’ (or, at least, the discussion is never broadcast).

The most beautiful part of the entire episode, to me, was when Jay has the microphone all to himself because he politely declines Amanda’s request to attend a hearing check-up at a clinic but accepts the alternative of recording his meeting and any thoughts that he wishes to share. In this moment, he has turned on the microphone, and he is presumably alone at home. He has just shared with the audience that he received his first ‘zero’ on his test (a score with implications that the audience doesn’t exactly understand, but can be inferred from the context and the gravity at which it is presented). He is rather upset, but he quickly spins it in a positive light, indicating, “in some ways it’s good news because it can’t get any worse!”

But for the most part, Jay is in despair. This incredible monologue is very revealing, and it is clear that he is really internally struggling with many obstacles. For example, how does he reconcile wanting to hear again primarily for music instead of for the sake of other people? He says it seems selfish. Similarly, how does he consolidate his doctor’s desires from a research perspective with his desires? He says he needs to determine what he wants. And then, in the most heartbreaking moment of the episode, he describes missing “the sounds of flutes and piccolos and birds and tiny little triangles… [pause]. Oh, they were so gorgeous [pause]. That’s it for today, bye-bye.”

I literally stopped the episode in that moment and seriously contemplated the implications of slowly losing my hearing. I may not be a musician or a composer, but I absolutely adore sounds. As trite as I may sound, the ocean waves have kept me sane for too many years of my life, and I’ve become dependent on the sounds of the beach. I also adore music. Mondays and Fridays are two of my favorite days of the week, because Spotify’s Discover Weekly and New Music Fridays are respectively released. I could not imagine slowly losing my hearing.

By the end of the episode, Mary and Amanda recommend checking out this app with whom they’ve partnered for this episode and the following few episodes, which will discuss hearing and sound. The app tests your ability to hear. I was incredibly impressed; as a typical naysayer when it comes to health apps on the phone, this app calibrates to the noise surrounding you, and the headphones you’re wearing. I will say that I was rather nervous to take it, and for good reason; my hearing ability was akin to that of 35-45 year olds. My best friends, who always tell me that my hearing is truly impaired, will feel justified.

About the Author

Annie Ungrady is a writer at Audiologue, where she writes a weekly column called Podcast Perusal with her impressions of classic podcast and radio episodesYou can email her at

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