In 2001, Dr Dean Shibata, section chief of neuroradiology at the University of Washington, presented his findings on how deaf people “hear” music.
According to his research results, deaf people have a similar experience in feeling as other people have in hearing the music. This is because of both groups of population process the music in the same part of the brain.
“The brain is incredibly adaptable. In someone who is deaf, the young brain takes advantage of valuable real estate in the brain by processing vibrations in the part of the brain that would otherwise be used to process sound,” Dr. Shibata said the same year at the 87th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).
Real life inspirations
Although this scientifically explained how deaf could hear music, the notion was familiar to most through the story of Beethoven. In 1796, he started losing his hearing and in 1801, he lost it completely. However, that didn’t stop him from composing and he created one of his most famous composition in that period the Moonlight Sonata and The Ninth Symphony.
Although Beethoven became an inspiration to musician since then and even today, in 1995 another person won people’s hearts. Heather Whitestone, a contestant at the Miss America Pageant danced and impressed the audience with her moves, and in tune with the music while being deaf.
Janine Roebuck, Britain’s opera mezzo-soprano, start losing her hearing while studying at the Royal Northern College of Music and then continued at the Paris Conservatoire and the National Opera Studio in London. She kept it a secret for 10 years and performed brilliantly because she was afraid she would lose the roles or get simple ones.
Tired of hiding her problem, she admitted it and left everyone in awe. Since that, she started working with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) and became of the most vocal members of the deaf community.
How do they "hear"?
Dr Shabata said: "These findings suggest that the experience deaf people have when ‘feeling' music is similar to the experience other people have when hearing the 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."
The way these vibrations work is that they help deaf people feel the bass. Namely, in order for this to happen, deaf people have to turn the music extremely loud. This volume would be unbearable for those with intact hearing and they’d have to wear earplugs. The vibrations coming from the bass are giving the rhythm and deaf person can sense the tempo.
The study, conducted by Dr Shabata in 2001, included 10 people deaf from birth and 11 who had no hearing loss at all. The participants were asked to hold the vibration pipe and inform Shabata when they felt them. The Doctor used brain scans to detect the signals and their transmission in the brain. This method helped him find out that the deaf and non-hard-of-hearing processed the music signals in the same part of the brain.
Another important conclusion came out of this study, and it regards the loss of hearing or deafness in young children. Due to the same processing characteristics as the non-hard-of-hearing person, deaf children should be exposed to music as early as possible. Since their young brains are still in development, they may better adjust to the stimuli and later present improved sensation to musical themes and variations.
Emoti-Chair and the vibes of music
Prior to ‘70s, deaf people didn’t have many options when it came to hearing aid technology. However, today there are many available devices and others still in development.
In 2009, a demonstration in a small Toronto club left quite an impression on the world. News all over the globe reported the unbelievable devices called Emoti-Chairs which allowed deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in the audience to experience the performance on stage. Since then, twelve of these chairs were used during the symphonic performance in 2013, and today they’re commercially available.
The Emoti-Chair translates audio signals into vibrotactile ones. Namely, it uses music, digital patching and speakers in the process of turning the sound into a sensation for deaf people. There are even performances specifically intended for deaf persons which use these chairs.
Visualization of the beat
Deaf people don’t shy away from music. They’ve been an inspiration to all when it comes to this type of art. They sing, play instruments, compose and even sing through sign language. Instead of deciding to give up, they started listening by feeling the beat. For example, drums are can be felt because they’re loud and give off great vibrations.
However, what helps them better identify the music is the visual aids. Many performances use lights and video representations which can help deaf people understand the music. This visualization is using lines and colors to highlights the tempo and bass which is mostly enough to garner music. There is also the BW Dance app which helps deaf and hard-of-hearing to feel and dance to music.
Liron Gino, a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, has come up with the Vibeat jewellery for the deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Actually, a device, this set of jewellery helps them feel music through vibrations. It consists of a necklace, bracelet and pin with round disk-like units. They jointly create an "alternative sensory system" used to convert music to vibrations.
“Music is one of the deepest and most primal forms of human communication, and its ability to convey emotion and expression make it into an invaluable tool,” said Gino.
In the end
The technological advancements have come a long and amazing way in the recent years. This is because of the remarkable individuals who provided inspiration and were pioneers. The perception of how the brain works and sensibility with which deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals feel the sound have helped shape the innovation process. More importantly, scientific achievements will certainly bring new and exciting ways for music to be heard even where the silence rules.