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Deaf Topics:  Music and the Deaf [3]

Also see: Music and the Deaf | 1 | 2 |

Benjamin Simpson

Music for People of the Eye


          For a hearing person, music is auditory.  It is sound. It can be broken down more precisely into melody, harmony, rhythm, words sung or heard, but basically it is the sound of a particular genre of music that makes you respond either positively or negatively to it. For individuals in the Deaf community, who are unable to hear these sounds, music is a much more physical and visual experience.  Contrary to common thought and despite the differences in how it is perceived, non-hearing individuals can receive enjoyment from music.   

          Everyone has heard that music can be felt by the Deaf, the vibrations coming through a speaker, a wooden floor or chair.  We now know that it is more than just vibrations that make music enjoyable to the Deaf community.

          Dr. Karns and colleagues, at the University of Oregon, Eugene, used MRIs to study and compare the brains of hearing and Deaf people.  His research showed a difference in the brains of non-hearing individuals compared to their hearing counterparts. The auditory cortex, the hearing part of the brain, of the deaf participants responded to touch and vision stimuli.  In hearing individuals this part of the brain is reserved for auditory processing. (Karnes, 2012).

          In 2001, Dr. Shibata, University of Rochester School of Medicine in NY, conducted research studies that looked scientifically at how deaf individuals perceive music. His research showed that deaf individuals sense vibrations in the same part of the brain that hearing individuals use to hear.  He reported that since the area of the brain where both the vibrations and sound were processed by the individuals in the study, hearing and Deaf, the perception of the vibrations by the Deaf are as real as the sounds are to the hearing. (Graham, 2001).

          Based on the above stated research along with the knowledge that ASL is much more than movements of the hands and rather a multi sensory language, using the hands, eyes, face, expressions and body to convey meaning, it would make sense that music would be interpreted and enjoyed most as a multi-sensory media. 

          There are now music videos being produced specifically for the Deaf so they can experience music more fully.  ASL is matched along with visual cues, lights, facial emotions and body language to songs to clarify the emotions and convey meaning. This allows the Deaf community to enjoy music in a way that enhances the experience.  New businesses are taking popular songs and converting them into a rich, multi-sensory experience for deaf individuals.  Music interpreters are also being seen at concerts more frequently, allowing individuals who are Deaf to more fully enjoy the music.     

          In the European Deaf community, concerts, Deaf Raves, are growing in popularity (Cornier, 2011).  Night clubs and other venues open their doors to the deaf community where they turn up the volume and the bass to allow for throbbing beats to be felt throughout the body.  ASL music interpreters and varied lighting are also sometimes used to help express meaning of the music and to allow for a deeper more meaningful experience.

          New technology is being experimented with that allows the sensations and vibrations of sound and music to be more easily felt.  There are now devices that can attach on a piece of furniture allowing the individual seated there to feel the various effects of the music.  Portable variations are being developed that would allow a deaf individual to wear it in a night club or concert so they could better "hear/feel" the music. 

          Like all pleasures in life, some are enjoyed more by some individuals than others.  Not all hearing individuals love music and the same applies in the Deaf community. However, being deaf does not exclude one from appreciating and enjoying music.

Just as ASL is a very unique and distinct language compared to the English language with its own rules and nuances, the way that an individual who is deaf enjoys music is different as well, but no less as real.




Cornier, Zoe. (2011, Nov.16). Sencity: more than a Deaf rave. New Internationalist blog. Internationalist blog. Retrieved 28, June, 2013: <>


Graham, Sarah. (2001, November 28). Brain scans show deaf subjects "hear" vibrations. Scientific America. Nature Publishing. Retrieved 27 June, 2013: <>.


Karnes, Christina. (2012, July 11).  Altered cross-modal processing in the primary auditory cortex of congenitally deaf adults: a visual-somatosensory fMRI study with a double -flash illusion.The Journal of Neuroscience. Society for Neuroscience. Retrieved 28, June, 2013: <>


Lindsley, Kathy. (2008, March 12). Hearing loss hasn't kept Sean Forbes out of the music industry. University News. Rochester Institute of Technology. Retrieved 27, June 2013: <>


University Of Washington (2001, November 28). Brains of deaf people rewire to "hear" music. ScienceDaily. Retrieved 1,July 2013:  <­ /releases/2001/11/011128035455.htm>


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