Music for The Deaf

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Ask anyone you know who enjoys music, which of their five senses is used most to enjoy it. Odds are that their answer will be "My sense of hearing." That seems to be the obvious answer, but the joy of music involves much more than the processing of sound waves through our ears.

Many of us have had a certain experience while driving that makes this very clear. You sense that a car coming up from behind you has the music blasting. You feel the music thumping in your chest as the car rushes past you. Your car vibrates to the other driver's music. Even if you don't recognize the song, you feel that bass with your whole body. That's not the sense of hearing, it's the sense of touch.

Many people listen to music while working at their computer. Music played on a computer often includes an on-screen light and pattern show. When we go to a concert, we respond to the extreme lighting effects. We experience the excited faces of the other audience members, and feel the excitement of our own companions. This is visual and emotional enjoyment of music, and has little to do with the actual sounds.

We have all heard stories about the amazing plasticity and adaptability of the brain. In the human brain there is a specialized golf-ball sized area over the left ear. In people with normal hearing, this area processes sound and another area of the brain processes vibrations. In deaf people, it has been shown that this golf-ball sized area adapts itself to process vibrations in addition to the area that is already programmed for vibrations. This adaptation can assist in giving deaf people a unique and very rich appreciation of music.

Deaf people's enjoyment of music can be enhanced with training and assistive equipment. The equipment can go from extremely low-tech to state-of-the-art. On the low-tech end, a simple balloon held in the fingertips can transmit airborne vibrations extremely well. A device that hooks over the ears and wraps behind the head contains a powerful vibrator that sends sound vibrations through the wearer's head. For a number of years in many schools there have been platforms mounted on springs and equipped with specially-adapted speakers that allow students standing or sitting on the platform to feel a wide range of musical sounds through their feet and bodies. A chair is in development that has air jets, vibrators and a floor plate to give a total-body experience of all the different instruments and variations of sound produced by a full orchestra.

Music is a multisensory event that can be enjoyed by hearing people and deaf people alike. Every day there are advances in technology that will give deaf people a fuller and deeper musical experience in the very near future.

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