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Music to Deaf Ears?

A girl with headphones sitting on a floor and listening to music

Can people who are deaf or hard of hearing enjoy music or even play musical instruments? Sure! Listening to music is not the only way.

When I was little, I was fascinated with my grandmother’s piano and wanted to learn how to play it. My grandmother had a piano book for kids that was used by my mother who took piano classes for a year when she was young. I studied the book, and with help of my grandmother I learned some basic notes and play simple music. I wanted to learn more, but did not get to convince my grandmother until after she met parents of hard of hearing kids who attended regular schools and took piano classes. When switching to a regular school I also got to take piano classes by a music teacher at a school for the deaf that I used to attend. It made my former deaf classmates perplexed and ask me if I became hearing all of sudden – of course, I didn’t and found their reactions funny.

I may not have played piano as well as someone with normal hearing, but I was proud to learn not only notes, but also play more complex compositions – including chords and using pedals. It helped me better understand how to play piano. I kept rhythm by counting as taught by my teacher. I have had profound hearing loss almost all my life, so I had little benefits from my hearing aids and could not hear high frequencies. When I got a cochlear implant (CI), I finally got to hear sounds of all keys on my parents’ piano that my sister played – though I still cannot identify music or songs. My hearing sister also took piano classes, but for much longer than my mother and I did. She helped me remember some notes when I tried to play piano again sometimes after a while and it was an amazing experience playing with a CI. My sister also learned to play guitar for a few years. I wanted her to teach me to play guitar, and it was not easy for her to do that as I am a leftie and she is not experienced at teaching lefties – even if I had normal hearing, it would not make any difference.

Even if you cannot hear music or interested in listening to it, you can still be familiar with popular artists. As a kid I loved to go through my parents’ vinyl records and cassettes learning about various singers and composers. As I got older, I was thrilled to learn that Beethoven was late deafened – his Ninth Symphony is one of the best known works that he composed while deaf.

There are more deaf and hard of hearing musicians than you can imagine – who can not only play, but even lead an orchestra. For example, Evelyn Glennie, a deaf Scottish percussionist, was leading 1000 drummers at the 2012 London Olympic Games. She does not even rely on hearing aids – she feels music through her body and “regularly play barefoot during both live performances and studio recordings in order to feel the music better.”

Some deaf and hard of hearing musicians who can sing or rely on hearing devices while others rely on vibrations. Still others also use sign language like Sean Forbes, famous for singing in ASL and co-founding D-PAN (Deaf Professional Arts Network). People with hearing loss (if they don’t wear hearing devices) are more sensitive to vibrations and visual stimuli than those with normal hearing. For example, when attending dance clubs or places with loud music, I do not need hearing devices to “listen” to music as it is loud enough for me to feel vibrations in my body.

Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss has a list of musicians and composers with hearing loss – including Evelyn Glennie and Sean Forbes.

Music can also be visual by mapping it into color as explained in Visual Audio – A language mapping audio to visuals. It is a cool way to show wavelengths in both visual and auditory spectrums.

Last, but not least, all music and songs need to be accessible to deaf/hoh people. Just providing lyrics is not enough – if just music is playing, you would still need to add a sound cue in square brackets like [music] or even better [upbeat music] or [“9th Symphony” playing]. Even if some deaf may not hear or understand music, those cues will give them a better feeling of music mood if they are watching a video or live performance. Karaoke, of course, is very useful for deaf people to follow even if they don’t sing and many of us don’t care how people sound when they sing. Some can sign karaoke instead of using voice – this has been done at some events and conferences for deaf/hoh I’ve attended.

There are so many ways to enjoy music – by hearing, seeing, feeling. Being deaf does not prevent you from enjoying or playing music, and it’s important to make it accessible via captions for videos, apps, and live performances.

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