How the Deaf Experience Music—Then and Now

When you think of experiencing music, what comes to mind? The rhythm, cadence, beat, pitch—the sound.

But for Amber Galloway-Gallego, her job is to help translate that sound for those who can’t hear and still want to experience a live show. She’s a sign language interpreter for some of the biggest musicians in the business.

“They are just checking it off on a box,” Amber says of accessibility options for the deaf at some shows. “They don’t think about the linguistic ramifications. Often, there’s no line of sight. There’s no speaker access. I just wish venues would make and design things that were more universally accessible.”

The good news is that all sound is vibration. So, while hearing people can listen to music, the deaf and hard of hearing take in music a different way: by feeling it. To help the deaf experience music more fully, technologists have been experimenting with innovations like wearables that translate the sound of music into full-body vibration. This technology is inspired by the Deaf community and “deafness” many levels.

Levels of deafness

While there are people who are profoundly deaf, there are also varying levels of hearing loss:

  • Mild: Very soft sounds, the lowest around 25-40 dB, are out of reach. Think the levels of a soft pattering of rain.
  • Moderate: The lowest decibels of 40-75 are out of reach for those with moderate loss, so something like a ringing telephone might be hard to hear.
  • Severe: Levels from 75-90 dB are out of reach, similar to sounds such as a power motor or motorcycle revving across the street.
  • Profound: This is the level that most people think of when it comes to deafness, and 90-120dB is the lowest level of sounds those with this level of loss can hear. For context, a thunderclap hovers around 120 dB.

People with mild or moderate deafness are considered hard of hearing, while individuals with severe or profound hearing loss are considered deaf. Some hard of hearing people like to be called Deaf (with a capital D) because they feel connected more closely to the Deaf community than the hearing community.

How the brain influences perceiving music No matter the level of a person’s hearing, other senses help to fill in the experience. So, while “hearing” music does involve the different parts of the ear, there’s a variety of different parts of the brain that play into the perception of music.

 

illustration of how brain interprets music

 

While the auditory cortex translates the sounds your ears perceive and turns it into understanding music, people who are Deaf can also take the sounds—as vibrations—to understand music as well.

‘Hacks’ for hard-of-hearing people to perceive music

Sound is produced when vibration moves through an object. That object could be the inner workings of an ear. However, in order to still enjoy music, the deaf and hard of hearing will still try to experience music by putting themselves in closer proximity with vibration through other mediums, like:

  • Wear no shoes: To prevent shoes from absorbing the vibrations, sometimes people will take off shoes to feel vibrations through the floor.
  • Hold a balloon: The thin material of the balloon is a great conductor of vibration. This allows people to feel the vibration in higher intensity than with nothing in their hands.
  • Stand next to a speaker: In this way, the proximity to the speaker allows for the vibration to move from the speaker in a concert venue to the body so that people can experience live music experiences.

It doesn’t stop there though. People have been known to hold cups or half-full water bottles in place of a balloon to still get some vibration.

“Deaf people feel things on an enhanced level,” Amber said. “In fact, a friend of mine, she cuts her hair at a specific length because she says her hair vibrates perfectly at that specific length—and that allows her to experience the music.”

These hacks get harder, however, in larger music venues where the vibrations are more dispersed. Interpreters can help enhance this experience, but they must be placed in the line of sight of both the deaf and hard of hearing as well as the artists themselves so that the deaf can fully enjoy the experience.

The next generation of musical experience

That’s why Avnet worked with Not Impossible Labs to design and produce Music: Not Impossible (M:NI) —a sophisticated wearable that allows the Deaf and hearing alike a completely immersive musical experience.

“Technology is the way to go to enhance the experience to bring about more inclusion,” Amber said.

In 2008, Mick Ebeling created Not Impossible Labs, a technology incubator and R&D lab that creates technology for the sake of humanity. In 2014, Mick and his team) were inspired by the deaf to create a vibration-based device that would communicate the full range and nuances of music, using the skin as a canvas. The resulting product, Music: Not Impossible, translates music into vibrations through the integration of hardware, software, wearables and wireless communication.

The wearable system includes a torso harness, two wristbands, and two ankle bands, which means that there are several areas of vibration—a much better experience than going without shoes or standing next to a speaker. In fact, this is a “surround body experience.”

What’s more, though, is that rather than simply an accommodation for those who traditionally found live concerts somewhat exclusionary, the Music: Not Impossible technology can introduce a wave of more universal design. Instead of finding a small adaptation, the entire experience can be transformative for the Deaf and hearing communities alike—and they’re sharing in one feeling together.

“Music has inundated our society in the last 20 years or so more than ever,” Amber said. “So right now if we break down those barriers, people will have greater access to it than ever before. If we start thinking so much bigger than ourselves and engaging with those who are differently abled, there’s a bigger opportunity to truly bring about equality to the experience.”

To learn more about this new technology, see how Music: Not Impossible is helping people from the Deaf and hearing communities experience music.

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