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How Deaf People Perceive Music

Sensing musical melodies when all that is heard is silence.

By Max JonesPublished 6 years ago 6 min read

People have always wondered how deaf people hear when it comes to music. Many thought that is was not possible to sense anything, but more and more research has captured how deaf people perceive music. Serving as one of the greatest examples of a deaf musician is Beethoven, and as time has gone on, more research and attention has been directed towards the mystery of how deaf people perceive music.

The Deafness of Beethoven

A prominent historical figure who became deaf as he aged was the great composer Beethoven. In the last four years of his life, he was able to write some of his most impactful music while deaf. In 1796, Beethoven started to hear buzzing, and in 1801, it was documented that he was going to be deaf. Because of his loss of hearing, Beethoven’s music is broken into three stages: The Early Period, The Middle Period, and The Late Period. The Early Period was from Beethoven’s childhood until about 1803. His music was characterized by higher note melodies. The Middle Period was the start of Beethoven’s deafness until 1820, when it was thought that he was completely deaf. His music was characterized by lower notes, while higher notes were not as significant in the music. The thought is that Beethoven probably could not hear the higher notes, so he kept them out. Beethoven created compositions such as the Moonlight Sonata. By 1820, deafness had set in, and Beethoven’s music entered The Late Period. During this period, Beethoven’s music included more high notes again. This suggested that Beethoven started to listen with his inner ear by hearing vibrations. During this time, The Ninth Symphony was completed with Beethoven being completely deaf.

Sensing the Vibrations

Beethoven inspired future musicians, but the next person captured the hearts and minds of people across the United States. In 1995, the Miss America Pageant took place. A contestant, Heather Whitestone, amazed audiences with her graceful moves as she danced around the stage. What was even more impressive was the fact that she moved to music while being deaf. Recently, a study may have explained how she and many other people with hearing impairments are still able to enjoy music.

Dr. Dean Shibata, from the University of Rochester in New York City, believed that people who are deaf could sense vibrations in the same area of the brain that connected with hearing. In Shibata’s study, there were ten people with hearing loss from birth and eleven more people who have no hearing loss at all. With this research, people were asked to hold onto a vibrating pipe. The people would then tell Shibata when they were able to detect a vibration coming from the pipe. During this study, a brain scan was done to pick up signals transmitted in the brain. What Shibata found was amazing and would help to determine how deaf people perceive music. Shibata found that deaf people that could feel the vibrations were sending signals to the same part of the brain as hearing in non-deaf people.

Shibata spoke to his claims: “These findings suggest that the experience deaf people have when ‘feeling’ music is similar to the experience other people have when hearing music. The perception of the musical vibrations by the deaf is likely every bit as real as the equivalent sounds, since they are ultimately processed in the same part of the brain.”

Another integral piece to this study was a caution presented by Shibata. He warned doctors to be careful doing surgeries on the brain, when a deaf person clearly has “hearing” functions.

Also, Shibata suggested that deaf children should be exposed to music when they are young because their brains may develop with stimulation.

So, how do vibrations work for a deaf person? Many times, deaf people turn music up really, really loud. This would be so loud that most hearing people would need earplugs. The thrill, for deaf people, comes purely from the vibrations. They might not be able to hear the lyrics, but just hearing the vibrations of the bass, or, if they hear very minimally, they might catch a little bass.

Other Ways

One device that is really helping capture music for deaf people is the Emoti-Chair. Before the 1970s, there wasn’t much for deaf people when it came to technology. Closed Captioning Technology was created to have words to movies and television shows, but that was it. But, the Emoti-Chair is a new piece of technology that helps with the representation of sound. The chairs use music, digital patching, and speakers to help create emotions in a deaf person. There are even specialize concerts for deaf people that use these types of chairs. The chair uses higher frequency vibrations around the head and low frequency vibrations where you sit. The speakers have vocal coils that go up and down the chair adjusting to an electrical current.

Now, for a hearing person, it would be easy to tell the difference between a F and an F sharp, but it is not easy to feel the difference for a deaf individual. However, a deaf person would be able to feel the difference when it comes to an F and a C. There is enough of a separation that a deaf person could detect it.

With eight pairs of vocal coils, the top of the Emoti-Chair reaches to 1,000 Hz and the bottom of the chair extends to 0 Hz. That is a separation of 8 to 10 notes. So, based on vibrations, deaf people can start to differentiate between tempos, pitch, loudness, volume, and rhythm all from this one chair. Other versions of this chair can help deaf people know when lyrical melodies are sung and another part of the chair vibrates when harmonies are sung. Some deaf people are even able to tell the genre of music from the vibrations of the chair. Ultimately, this chair has revolutionized music for a deaf person and more devices, including a midi keyboard, are being created to help deaf people sense the vibrations.

Feeling the Beat

Even though deaf people can’t hear music the same way that others can, they can feel music. Some deaf people are even able to play musical instruments. Deaf people go to concerts and witness the atmosphere as others jam out to their favorite songs. Other people that are deaf even use sign language during a concert to the lyrics that are being sung.

Since the human ear does not work as well for a deaf person, they depend on feeling the beat. Drums are one instrument that can be felt. Unlike some instruments, drums are a loud instruments that give off great sound and vibration.

Many times, music is accompanied by lights and dancing. Music’s performing style is visual entertainment in its own right. While deaf people would love to hear sound, they do not need to find pleasure in the singular sound of music. The visual aspect and memories of music, if they were able to hear before, is what keeps deaf people engaged and involved.

The Full Perception

It is amazing how far technology has come to help deaf people experience music. Long after Beethoven started to use his inner ear to listen for the vibrations of music, people have learned to listen for vibrations with drums and the bass using technology such as the Emoti-Chair and using their visual senses to garner music in a fulfilled sense. This is how deaf people perceive music.

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About the Creator

Max Jones

New Orleans raised, a retired self taught sax player who spends his time keeping jazz alive through his writing, reviews, and occasional show.

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