Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions. 


Sunday, July 14

Gapers Block

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr

« Get To Know Local Artist Clip Art More Benefits for Madina Lake's Matthew Leone »

Feature Thu Jul 22 2010

Beyond Vibrations: The Deaf Experience In Music


What is music like when you can't hear it? It's a question that sounds like a philosophical debate on par with trees falling in the woods and single hands clapping, but this is not a question for rhetorical amusement, it's something that audiophiles as well as hearing people in love with signed languages and Deaf culture have thought about in depth. What is the deaf person's experience with an art form that is seemingly only valued by those with fully functioning cochleas?

There is a notion that music is only heard and thus, can only appreciated by the hearing. However, deaf people have a unique and challenging perspective to music that has seldom been explored outside of deaf communities. With in the deaf and hard of hearing world, there are people not only creating music, but people who love and make music a part of their lives. In this world, the various shades of gray are celebrated as the spectrum of deafness, from slightly hard of hearing to "stone deaf" are all part of this community. The experience of sound can be different for many people who's abilities with hearing are not clearly identified in terms that hearing people are used to. it is never an either/or experience, and definitely not something that the hearing world can understand completely. Most assume deaf people enjoy music solely by tactile sensations, but going beyond feeling vibrations, what is the experience of music like for someone who doesn't hear or least least like we do?

Music is felt on a physical level by everyone. Getting a buzzing in our core when the bass is plucked or feeling the power of a drum that mimics our life force is universal. A hearing person can only try to imagine the sensations that are much more developed in a deaf person. One can try touching the ground and placing a back against walls at shows trying to see if they can tell the difference in rhythm and the type of instrument being played by the feelings that hum along the body when the music infiltrates the molecules in in the walls and in ourselves as well. Earplugs are commonly used to protect hearing, but also can be used to try to get as close to heard of hearing as possible for anyone curious to what it might be like to only be able to feel music. Someone who is hearing can switch back and forth from listening and feeling, yet somehow can not have one with out the other and will almost always wind up frustrating as they will hear the music much easier than they can feel it. As someone with no problem responding to sound I often wonder what happens when music meets deaf ears attached to a hearing body?

Jason Johnson is a Co-Chairperson with the Chicago Deaf and Hard of Hearing Cultural Center.

Jason Johnson signing "Music"
Photo By Kirstie Shanley

Jason, born deaf and a music fan was excited to experience one of the most interactive and visual bands of recent times, local marching band Mucca Pazza. G Mucca Pazza full.jpg

Photo by Kirstie Shanley

With more members than a ska band, tons of horns and the loudest attitude this side of a Sousa convention, they could be the unofficial hearing band for the deaf community. When I met Jason outside of Lincoln Hall there were odd stares from smokers and staff as we started signing. People have always had a knack for staring at signers, looking on in amazement at hands that make words, a dance of silent conversations. My awareness was not because of the language we were communicating in, I assumed it was the location. What is a deaf dude doing at a music show? The stares were shy and filled with smiles. Was it fascinating or confusing? The idea of deafness and music together still makes little connection to those outside of the culture and those who only hear with their ears.

At this show there was more of a visual aspect to experiencing music than at something like seeing a shoegaze band. As soon as the show beginning Jason starting feeling the speakers to feel sound. We realized the band has no use for them as the band came out through the side, going through the audience to get to the stage playing as they made their way through The feeling of the sound waves leaving the tuba hitting your body firsthand. G Mucca Pazza Conductor.jpg

Photo By Kirstie Shanley

With the band playing good portions of the show in the audience, the
feeling was close to sinful as all senses were being hit with full blown force. Plume hats, dancing, cheerleaders and world class commotion all went along with the music.

G Mucca Pazza let me see your hand signals.jpg
Photo By Kirstie Shanley

Jason was dancing front row to the music knowing which feeling was made from the brass instruments and which was made from the drums based on a superior ability to feel sound. 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. I was very curious to how Jason liked the Mucca Pazza show. "I loved them" he told me afterward. "At first I didn't know who they were, but then I felt the vibrations and saw everyone going crazy and loved it! The sound was really fierce and there were different feelings between the trombones and drums!" We forget how multi-sensory music can be, what a physical act it is for our bodies to absorb sound. When I asked Jason to describe Mucca Pazza's music he simply flexed and unflexed his and fingers pushed his palms forward in a silent 4/4 time signature. The translation? "BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM! All signed with a huge smile.
G Jason dancing fisheye.jpg

Photo By Kirstie Shanley

Jason hopes moments like these where deaf people go to non-deaf specific events would be more common. One of the goals of the Chicago Deaf and Hard Of Hearing Cultural Center is to help the cultures combine, network and build a bridge between the hearing, hard of hearing and deaf communities and also according to Jason " have a place of public access for business, media, social networking with the deaf and hard of hearing community. The achievement in this organization is to represent a value of deaf and hard of hearing world that can be share, seen and be able to social in one place where everyone can make anything possible and build networking from business, media, social event with easy place of access". If this were to happen there would be more events that supported Deaf culture from other communities. According to their mission The CDHHCC wants to encourage the general public to recognize, respect and celebrate Deaf culture. This could mean events with more deaf musicians.

Sean Forbes might be one of the first on board in contributing this brave new multi-cultural world. A deaf musician and co-founder of D-PAN, The Deaf Performing Arts Network, a non-profit that helps bring music videos to deaf people, Sean is skimming the lines between two worlds, paving his own road as a leader in the deaf musical community. "I am like a freak at a freak show." Sean says about being a deaf musician. "Some people don't get me, or what I am trying to do." Established in 2007, D-PAN has the goal of creating top-quality ASL-centric music videos. The organization hopes to make music and music culture more accessible to people who have been excluded from participation, mainly the deaf and hard of hearing community .

The ongoing and sometimes unanswerable question to many is why and how do deaf people experience a form of art that to a hearing world assumes they don't have proper tools to enjoy and how are music videos going to help if you can't hear in the first place? The idea of a deaf person getting down to a song, singing along can seem odd or even impossible to so many people. "How does a deaf person know what a song sounds like?" is a question I have been asked when exploring this topic. "Hearing people, don't get it a lot." Sean says For me it is about feeling it." And Sean doesn't just mean just with our bodies. "Hearing people take it for granted that they are hearing it [music]. "Everyone experiences music differently. Some might feel it and some might not." A hearing person tends to process music differently than someone who is deaf. We can rely only on our sense of sound to give us a large part of what a particular song has to offer, but the one aspect of music that doesn't need to be heard is the part that can trigger emotions and feelings.

Sean told me why he started D-PAN. "I think there was a void, so many [deaf] people enjoying music without lyrics. I wanted to make videos inspirational. Music is an escape for many people, I feel like [as] people watching videos, we try to forget about reality."

Even without a complete understanding of the song when you watch one of Sean's videos you are tuned in to a world where music becomes visual and you get excited just watching. Sean's energy and signing is a huge part of what makes his music. As he states in his video "I'm Deaf" he is "giving beats to the hard of hearing" and using signing along with his music is how he makes that happen.

You can get a musical sense of what sound he is creating as he signs his song at warp speed (at the same rate of his rapping) If you are deaf, you get it and if you happen to hear it, you can also see it. He is bringing music to those who can't hear. Deaf since the age of one, he wants to show that you don't have to hear a be a musician. In his videos Sean raps on beat and sings on key about being deaf. Vibrant 1980's inspired closed captioning accompanies the video and becomes Sean's sidekick in the fight against misconceptions about deaf music. Yes, he is rapping and has the beat down, but Sean wants to be clear that he is not a rapper. While his background as a musician is in percussion, Sean is also a lyricist. While some rappers and other hip hop artists use hand gestures as visual communication, when Sean preforms he is in fact "actually saying something" to his audience in American Sign Language. There are a lot of similarities to Sean's style and hip hop, both Deaf culture and hip hop have elements of defending idenity, showing pride and giving information. Sean has been working for years to make his music and is now working with Mark and Jeff Bass, the producers who helped launch Eminem's career.

So could deaf music be the next big genre? Sean said "A lot of deaf people say they don't need music but then when I expose them to it it becomes visual. I want to explain that to other deaf people. I see myself a the deaf music historian. I have been reading and have been exposed to music ever since I was a kid."

Modern music loves to places genre to each descriptive note to help separate and categorize based on who is making the music, what is sounds like and where it comes from. Every culture has a genre and Deaf culture is no exception. Part of deaf music history is Beethoven's Nightmare the first deaf rock band that formed over 30 years ago by three students who met at Gallaudet University, the historic liberal arts university for the deaf. bobhiltermann11.jpg Composed of percussionist Bob Hiltermann, Bassist Ed Chevy and rhythm guitarist Steve Longo, they play a spirited blend of rock music that has elements of surf and metal, but is all deaf rock. The band also takes an educational approach in their songs to help support the deaf identity. It is crucial, just as it is in Sean Forbes's music to identify as deaf. It is a theme that is explored again and again to drill it in to people's heads that deaf people are making music and it isn't a joke. Why is the concept of a deaf musician so odd for hearing people to get? Steve Longo said " [It is] because of the old myth thinking that deaf can't do much without hearing". I think deaf music has a place in deaf and hearing communities because the songs itself describing our language and culture."

At the next show you go to, think about how your body responds along with your ears as you take in a favorite song or what power it is to see a facial expression of a musician making it all happen. Hearing is such a small part of music, the rest makes us realize that we are temporary vessels that the music just lives in...until it all fades back to silence.


This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information.

GB store

eee / July 22, 2010 11:55 AM

Very interesting read. I married into a family where hearing loss is a genetic condition which increases with age. It's been an eye-opener for me in regards to how those with hearing loss adapt daily. I'm glad there are artists like Sean out there, paving new ground and proving you don't need perfect hearing to appreciate and enjoy music.

MSJR / July 22, 2010 12:38 PM

Great story - I've been fascinated with how the deaf approach music ever since learning as a young boy that Beethoven was deaf for the latter part of his life. It was wonderful to get a more detailed portrait of music and the deaf community.

Def Mic / July 23, 2010 11:40 AM

I'm Deaf and is consider one of the kind in the rap culture...I'm ready to shine..

monica / September 2, 2013 1:21 PM

I have a question about how deaf learn about music, my high school music appreciation teacher taught music from a textbook written for the deaf, I went to a hearing school. and I can't find the textbook now. I have a friend taking introduction to music appreciation in college and I wanted him to be able to use the book, because it teaches music so differently. Instead of finding the 13year old text I was hoping I could locate something newer and up to date, because it is the only real way to truly learn to appreciate music, please help?

Bernd Willimek / February 16, 2014 4:43 AM

Music and Emotions

The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can't convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, "No more." If someone were to say these words slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called "lead", "leading tone" or "striving effects". If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change - but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

Further information is available via the free download of the e-book "Music and Emotion - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek, music theorist

Mariah Brown / March 4, 2014 1:07 PM

i am deaf person

Hope / September 21, 2015 10:14 PM

I am hard of hearing. I have moderate sensorineural hearing loss. I just want to understand something. Why is it if I listen to music with my headset I can hear every single word of the musics. But when it comes to live music I cannot hear the words to the music but can hear and feel the base sounds such as drums, guitars, pianos etc. It really confuses me. I do not wear hearing aids because I cannot afford them though my doctor recommends it.

Megan / October 14, 2015 5:25 PM


I believe that is because in a live atmosphere, there is so much ambient noise around you, that it is hard to distinguish the individual sounds and focus into the words being said. This can be hard for anyone at time, whether you are heard of hearing or not.

Every sound has it's own frequency. When you wear your headset, the frequencies of the music and the words are physically vibrating onto your head and ear, traveling through your ear canal. These vibrations actually help your brain make out the distinct differences in each frequency, helping you hear the words better. That is a simple version of what I believe is correct from classes I have taken on the subject! :)

Megan / October 14, 2015 5:26 PM


I believe that is because in a live atmosphere, there is so much ambient noise around you, that it is hard to distinguish the individual sounds and focus into the words being said. This can be hard for anyone at time, whether you are heard of hearing or not.

Every sound has it's own frequency. When you wear your headset, the frequencies of the music and the words are physically vibrating onto your head and ear, traveling through your ear canal. These vibrations actually help your brain make out the distinct differences in each frequency, helping you hear the words better. That is a simple version of what I believe is correct from classes I have taken on the subject! :)

GB store

Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »


  Chicago Music Media

Alarm Magazine
Big Rock Candy Mountain
Boxx Magazine
Brooklyn Vegan Chicago
Can You See The Sunset From The Southside
Chicago Reader Music
Chicagoist Arts & Events
Chicago Music Guide
Chicago Singles Club
Country Music Chicago
Cream Team
Dark Jive
The Deli Chicago
Jim DeRogatis
Fake Shore Drive
Gowhere Hip Hop
The Hood Internet
Jaded in Chicago
Largehearted Boy
Little White Earbuds
Live Fix Blog
Live Music Blog
Loud Loop Press
Oh My Rockness
Pop 'stache
Pop Matters
Resident Advisor
Sound Opinions
Sun-Times Music Blog
Theft Liable to Prosecution
Tribune Music
UR Chicago
Victim Of Time
WFMU's Beware of the Blog
Windy City Rock


Abbey Pub
Andy's Jazz Club
Aragon Ballroom
Auditorium Theatre
Beat Kitchen
Bottom Lounge
Buddy Guy's Legends
The Burlington
California Clipper
Concord Music Hall
Congress Theater
Cubby Bear
Double Door
Elbo Room
Empty Bottle
Green Mill
The Hideout
Honky Tonk BBQ
House of Blues
Kingston Mines
Lincoln Hall
Logan Square Auditorium
Mayne Stage
The Mutiny
Old Town School of Folk Music
Park West
The Promontory
Red Line Tap
Reggie's Rock Club & Music Joint
The Riviera
Thalia Hall
The Shrine
Symphony Center
Tonic Room
Uncommon Ground
The Vic
The Whistler

  Labels, Promoters
  & Shops:

Alligator Records
Beverly Records
Bloodshot Records
Dave's Records
Delmark Records
Drag City
Dusty Groove
Flameshovel Records
Groove Distribution
He Who Corrupts
Jam Productions
Jazz Record Mart
Kranky Records
Laurie's Planet of Sound
Minty Fresh
Numero Group
mP Shows
Permanent Records
Reckless Records
Smog Veil Records
Southport & Northport Records
Thick Records
Thrill Jockey Records Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records
Victory Records

GB store


Featured Series


Transmission on Flickr

Join the Transmission Flickr Pool.

About Transmission

Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
Please see our submission guidelines.

Editor: Sarah Brooks,
Transmission staff inbox:



Transmission Flickr Pool
 Subscribe in a reader.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15