Employee Spotlight

March 29, 2024

What happens when musicians lose their hearing? Many find their way to VUMC’s Katie Berg — a scientist, a clinician — and a musician.

Cochlear implants can restore the ability to hear speech, but not music. In the heart of Music City, Katie Berg helps fit cochlear implants tuned specially for the needs of musicians.

Katie Berg. Photo by Erin O. Smith.

Steve Borden is a musician and songwriter who, in a devastating twist of fate, has lost most of his ability to hear.

He knows the date it happened: May 9, 2021.

He remembers exactly where he was when he first noticed a problem: he was working in a recording studio, listening through headphones, and he knew something wasn’t right.

“I thought my headphones were broken,” he said. Then he realized: “It’s not the headphones — it’s my ear.”

“My background is as a musician,” he said. “I have a degree in music. I am a working songwriter.”

He then added, with devastating understatement: “Stereo hearing is important to me.”

Steve Borden. Photo by Erin O. Smith.

But due to a condition called idiopathic sudden sensorineural hearing loss, Borden’s hearing was forever changed.

He lived in California then, working in the high-tech industry, and made his way through an array of specialists before concluding that his hearing was not going to return to the way it was. That day in May had changed his life.

One option that was mentioned to him was a cochlear implant, which, while not restoring hearing, can allow understanding of speech.

But cochlear implants are designed for exactly that — speech. They are not designed for the perception of music, the very thing that Borden had just lost and desperately wanted back.

Borden eventually made his way to Vanderbilt University Medical Center and to possibly the most well-suited clinician in the world to help him.

That’s getting a little ahead of the story.

From Musician to Scientist

Katie Berg, AuD, PhD, was well on her way to becoming a professional musician when to her great surprise, she found herself on the way to being a clinician, a scientist and a specialist in helping musicians who have lost their hearing.

That unexpected change in career plans came because as a college music major at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, Berg was required to take a science class.

She chose one, “Psychology of Hearing,” with fingers crossed that, as science courses go, it would be an easy one.

“It was not,” she said.

But it was life-changing.

The teacher was Jeremy Loebach, PhD, who remains a mentor to Berg, and as part of the class he brought in a guest speaker, an elementary school music teacher who had a cochlear implant.

“She talked about being able to hear speech but could never hear music the same way again,” Berg said.

“I didn’t know anything about cochlear implants, but I knew about music. I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a space here that I want to learn more about.’

“Before college, I’d never even heard of audiology.”

Born With Music in Her Ears

Berg, a native of Tacoma, Washington, can’t remember a time when music wasn’t a major part of her life.

“I started playing violin when I was 4. My big sister played, and I wanted to do everything she did.”

What may have begun as a little sister emulating her older sibling bloomed quickly in Berg’s case.

“I could read music before I could read words,” she said.

A portrait of the scientist as a young musician. Katie Berg at age 7 — a seasoned violinist of several years by that point.

Her first teacher taught her to play a lot of Irish jigs – the kind of music in which the violin might more often be called a fiddle. Later teachers focused more on classical pieces.

In addition to playing the violin, she also picked up the cello and played both through high school but decided to focus on the violin as a music major in college beckoned. The violin, she noted, is a very versatile instrument.

“You can play by yourself, you can play in quartets, you can play with pianists. I played in orchestras and a bluegrass band.”

That versatility served her well when she got to college.

“I played for food and fun money in college, including a lot of church gigs,” she said. “I think I’ve played for every religious denomination you can think of.”

Playing for others, including on a tour that took St. Olaf music students to China, deepened her love of music.

“I fell in love with the idea that you could travel and communicate with people, even if you don’t speak their language,” she said.

The Right Combination

Berg made her way to Vanderbilt after doing lab work in audiology as both an undergraduate (“I learned how cool science could be, and that’s how I got hooked”) and a research assistant at the Mayo Clinic — another Minnesota institution conveniently located near St. Olaf.

She started at Vanderbilt in 2015, and, after time, secured a place in the lab of René Gifford, PhD, Fred H. Bess Professor of Audiology and director of the I HEAR Laboratory in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences.

“As a professional musician, audiologist and an NIH-funded scientist, Dr. Berg is uniquely suited to work with patients and study participants with hearing loss who are musicians, songwriters, audio engineers, or simply passionate about music,” Gifford said.

“The importance of music in our lives cannot be overstated, yet cochlear implants were not designed with music appreciation in mind. Thankfully, there’s no one more dedicated than Dr. Berg to the mission of improving music sound quality for cochlear implant recipients.”

René Gifford, PhD

Berg earned her AuD degree in 2019, so she was seeing patients as a Doctor of Audiology, but because of her research interest, she began work on a PhD.

Music. Clinical audiology. Research.

Katie Berg is one of the few people in the world with that combination of credentials. People often point out that music and medicine are the two pillars that make Nashville unique, and she embodies that combination.

So, any cochlear implant patient with a music background who comes to VUMC is very likely to be directed Berg’s way.

“That’s how Steve came to me,” she said.

Borden, who worked for 20 years in the film industry in Hollywood, now lives in Nolensville, Tennessee, and as fellow musicians and participants in research on music and cochlear implants, he sees himself and Berg on a journey of discovery together.

“Dr. Berg and I hit it off great – we’re both musicians, so we discussed music. She thinks outside the box. At one point she said, ‘Let’s throw the rule book out and focus on music.’”

Steve Borden confers with Katie Berg during an appointment. She has worked with him to adjust his cochlear implant for music perception. Photo by Erin O. Smith

As Berg worked to adjust Borden’s cochlear implant, they would listen to the same song over and over, seeking the best way to tune the implant for the truest sound.

One of the best songs to try the implant on turned out to be Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”

“Guitar. Bass. Drums. Vocal,” Borden said, summing up the song’s combination of elements. “Rhythmic music works best with an implant.”

Borden has been a Beatles fan his whole life but has a new appreciation now that he hears their music in a different way – “I found that I’m a great disciple of John, Paul, George and Ringo.”

He is quick to note that the music he hears now is not the same as before.

“I don’t hear in stereo. I hear two different sounds. I’m still learning. It’s an interesting way of living. And I’m still learning,” he said.

The Power of Connections

With the help of research subjects such as Borden, Berg is learning, too. She completed her doctoral thesis this year and remains at the forefront of research and clinical care for people with cochlear implants who want to hear and enjoy music.

Berg is a strong advocate for the value of cochlear implants for people with hearing loss, whether musicians or not. She has seen many musicians as patients, and, living in Music City, she said that there are many others who could benefit.

And even though she has come down solidly on the side of science for a career, Berg is still a working musician, performing with the Nashville Philharmonic, a group that plays free concerts for the community and in schools, seeking to get children interested in music.

For her, the music and the research are both in pursuit of making sure others have access to the joy that she felt as a child — the power of music and the connections it can bring among people.

“The implant does not restore normal hearing, but it does provide access to communications and a really good quality of life,” she said. “Your hearing should not hold you back from doing anything you want to do.”