Music and Deafness

Many people may assume that deafness must exclude an individual from enjoying or participating in auditory activities such as movies, concerts, musical plays, operas, or simply playing a musical instrument. Deafness by definition is the inability to use hearing to communicate through speech and language. Partial hearing impairment interferes with auditory communication, but doesn’t completely prevent it. But music transcends language. Music is a multidimensional art form and hearing is only part of the picture. Experiencing music can also involve rhythm, sight, vibrations, and emotion, all of which are sensations that can be communicated with or without auditory ability.


Being deaf does not preclude one from singing, playing music, or even composing it. Beethoven began experiencing hearing loss by his late 20s and had long been considered functionally deaf when he wrote and performed his famous Ninth Symphony. Deaf since age 12, Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Elizabeth Glennie has learned to distinguish pitches by the different feel of their vibrations. Finnish rapper Signmark was born deaf, but has been able to use the bass and heavy beats typical of rap music to sense the rhythm that he cannot hear. Each of the following people achieved successful music careers in spite of being partially or completely hearing impaired.

Artists Who Combine Visionary Experiences and Music

Music videos and electronic music visualizers certainly provide a graphic accompaniment to songs. But many artists take it a step further, incorporating elements of sight, touch, and even taste into their acts. Cirque de Soleil performances are set to music, but it is the graceful movement of the dancers and the texture of their elaborate and vibrant costumes that bring the music to life. Blue Man Group is known for their reliance on theatrics and props, from paint drums that splash colored pigment with the varying intensity of drum beats to the occasional use of crunchy cereal as an instrument. Similarly, the percussionist company Stomp uses everyday items like garbage can lids and brooms to create beats that can be seen and felt. With the following artists, one can sense the music whether or not they can hear it.

Technological Advances to Provide Better Access to Music

Cochlear implants are two-piece electronic devices that can help people with profound hearing loss perceive sound. An outer piece picks up and digitizes sound signals, then transmits the signals to an inner ear implant that stimulates the auditory nerve. But while cochlear implants allow many deaf people to hear speech, they do not usually allow for differentiation of pitch changes and patterns. Therefore the majority of cochlear implant recipients are still unable to enjoy music audibly. Scientists are currently exploring how a concept known as synesthesia could allow perception of music. A small percentage of the population experiences synesthesia (or alternately, synaesthesia), a condition in which two of the five senses are involuntarily linked. In visual motion synesthesia, certain motions can trigger the sensation of sound. This has led to the development of experimental technologies, such as a vibrating collar worn around the neck and shoulders. Each vibration is intended to correspond with a different frequency, from bass to treble. Another idea being explored is a vibrating chair. When combined with music and a visual display, many participants in an academic study were able to experience a more immersive full-body sensation when listening to music, similar to what people of all hearing abilities experience at a live performance.

Thus, through the use of technological innovation, visual performances, and personal effort, people who are deaf are not only able to enjoy music, but to create it, feel it, and even see it. Deafness is not about sensory deprivation but the ability to look at music from outside the box, even if the box is soundproofed.