Coming from a linguistic background with a focus on speech pathology, I’ve felt the importance of integrating the deaf community in conversations around language, sound, and music. Humans need to communicate, to express. I see music as a universal language that everyone can understand and speak, yet it seems like there is still a lot of ignorance separating the hearing and deaf communities on the subject.
Talking about the auditory system and how it transduces air compressions and refractions into electrical signals can give us a huge insight into how sound is put together and performed, but what about people who don’t have this complex equipment sitting in their ear? How do they appreciate the meaning and emotion of a musical composition? If they can’t perceive pitch and timbre, can they truly appreciate music as well as a hearing people can?”
“There has been research that supports that deaf people are able to feel music within the vibrations in the same part of the brain that hearing people use when the melodies we love get caught in our head… We forget how multi-sensory music can be, what a physical act it is for our bodies to absorb sound.” (Aharona Ament 2010)
Something important to remember is that not all deafness is the same. There are many complicated structures inside the ear and many different pieces that can affect or limit how vibrations travel to the auditory nerve. Deaf people have a spectrum of audial perception and personal experience. For some, deafness is a prenatal condition, for others, it is a result of injury or illness. The circumstances surrounding their condition may be different but they learn to adapt in similar ways. Deafness is surrounded by a culture. They have common experiences, attitudes, and values that reflect the way they interact with the world. So where does music fit into all of this? Music and culture are closely connected. Rhythm and movement are woven into our biology. Why would deaf people be any different?
Sound is basically vibration. The displacement of air molecules creates a sensation that is perceived by the body and then interpreted by the brain. For deaf people, this simply becomes a kinetic sensation. The brain then interprets these vibrations into syntactic concepts like beat, tempo, attack, rhythm, intensity, and even semantic concepts like mood, emotion, energy, style, and genre. Maybe music truly rests in the head of the listener rather than the ear. There is a lot of controversy around the development of cochlear implants and its effect on the deaf community. Their language and culture depend on people using and living it, yet they feel as though they are treated like a disease that needs to be cured. Meanwhile, they contribute a valuable outlook on the musical community. It doesn’t take long to find stories of deaf musicians adapting and excelling in their chosen field, even with limited perception of sound. They are creators and innovators, finding new ways to show how music can also be a kinetic and visual medium. I think as we broaden our view of the musical experience, and include these unique perspectives, we can gain a better understanding of what music really means to us, and what we mean to each other.