Beyond Hearing: How Deaf Individuals Experience Music
Find out how deaf people experience music, different and exciting ways of enjoying sound and vibrations, and more in this insightful article!
How many of you know that the most famous composer who ever lived, Ludwig van Beethoven, was deaf? The Ninth Symphony, his most recognizable work, was done when he was near or completely deaf. Not only that, Beethoven is said to have used the vibrations felt through his piano in his later years when he was profoundly deaf.
For many, accessing and listening to music is second nature to them. We can hear music on the radio, over speakers in the grocery store, or through personal technology such as phones and laptops. Therein lies a common misconception that deaf and hard of hearing people cannot experience music in the same way hearing people do. Sometimes in life we as deaf people are told no. “No, you can’t, you’re deaf, you can’t hear music.” That is not the case. We can. Music is not exclusive to the hearing community.
How Do Deaf People Hear Music
For those who can hear, enjoying music usually means listening through a speaker or headphones. As it is with deaf people, we often use our other senses to make up for our hearing loss. When it comes to music, we feel it. That is called sensory substitution - where we use information from one sense as a proxy for another. (This is, in a way, similar to how people who are blind use their sense of touch). Deaf people sense vibration in the part of the brain that other people use for hearing - this helps explain how deaf musicians can sense music and how deaf people can partake in concert goings. Score one for compensatory plasticity!
(Compensatory plasticity is a process where parts of the brain begin to work together to account for the loss of one of the five senses, in this case, hearing. The remaining senses become heightened.)
We use the vibrations caused by musical sounds to help us ‘listen’ to music. The humming sound produced by picking a bass string or the boom of the drums can be felt very easily by deaf people. Musicians with hearing loss often use the vibration of their instrument, or the surface to which it is connected, to help them feel the sound they create. This kind of tactile feedback can also occur while at a concert or a club where speakers play so loud that the whole building shakes and you can feel the vibrations pulsing in your body.
A Spectrum of Sound
I would be remiss if I did not point out that there are many different levels of hearing loss amongst the deaf and hard of hearing community. It can range from mild hearing loss to profound deafness and that impacts the approach we employ as deaf people towards enjoying music. This means every deaf or hard of hearing person’s relationship with music will be different.
- Some use hearing aids to help them hear music; others use their cochlear implant. This can lead to enhanced levels of hearing but for those who don’t wear any devices, they turn up the volume so they can feel the vibrations from beats.
- Some will subscribe to Spotify or Pandora; others will rely more primarily on YouTube for ASL-performed songs.
When we think of our favorite songs, they are most likely associated with a positive memory. The opening notes of a song that we love brings up some sort of emotion. People who are deaf can have this sort of feeling connected to music. It would be recognized from the bass notes or the beat of the song, rather than the notes. We can feel the percussion begin hammering us; and it is familiar. We don’t have to hear the words, but we can feel it.
Making Music Inclusive
It is also common for bands/musicians to have sign language interpreters who sing song lyrics for their deaf fans. Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers come to mind. In this way, the deaf gain equal access to the music performed on stage because they can feel the music and get to know the words to the songs. That is one way of making society more inclusive as people with hearing loss want to attend musical events just as much as anybody else.
ASL representation is also growing as part of the NFL’s premier crown jewel: the Super Bowl. Some of the deaf ASL interpreters for the NFL’s Super Bowl in recent years include:
- 2022: Warren “WaWa” Snipe and Sean Forbes for Dr. Dre. WaWa is known for rapping under a new genre called “Dip-Hop”, or hip hop through deaf eyes. Sean Forbes is a rapper, activist, and speaker who uses music to champion deaf awareness. He co-founded D-PAN, the Deaf Professional Arts Network.
- 2023: Justina Miles for Rihanna. Justina is an ASL performer and the first woman to sign in ASL at the Super Bowl pregame and halftime shows.
- Matthew is the founder of DEAFinitely Dope, an organization that aims to unite the deaf and hearing communities together through music, and the tour interpreter for Chance the Rapper.
- Amber actively makes music more accessible and immersive at live concerts, especially rap/hip-hop. She has interpreted for Kendrick Lamar and runs a YouTube channel where she interprets songs for the deaf community through her signature energetic performances.
D-PAN (The Deaf Performing Arts Network) is a non-profit organization that strives to make music and music culture accessible to deaf people. D-PAN recreates music videos of popular songs, and these videos have deaf and hard of hearing actors who sign the lyrics of a song in American Sign Language. The deaf artists that are a part of this organization can also create their own music. The creation of music is not limited to the hearing.
Keep in mind that feeling the vibrations through the speakers in your home will be a different experience than the vibrations of a dance floor at a club. The same principle applies to whether the deaf person feels with their feet in an indoor (concrete) or outdoor (grass) venue. The bottom line is that a deaf person could experience the same song in multiple ways by feeling the vibrations through different objects. The application of vibrotactile technology to interactive performances has so much potential for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
The Power of Music
It is a beautiful thing to know that it is possible to translate the auditory input into something visual and still end up with something meaningful. Music can literally move people, reach out and touch people, no matter whether they are hearing or deaf. The ways we interact with and consume music just looks and feels different. Everyone deserves to experience music fully.