Jogging, working out in the gym, going to gigs, meeting friends in a café or just relaxing – no matter what we do and where we do it, music is all around us. We immerse ourselves in its cornucopia of rhythms. For most of us, imagining a world without music is impossible.

But for those who have some form of hearing loss, and those with a severe or profound hearing loss, the world of music has not always been accessible – until now. A University of Liverpool project is using the power of vibration to bring music to d/Deaf[1] people in schools, live music venues and music production studios.

Hearing through the skin

The Musical Vibrations project (www.musicalvibrations.com), run by Professor Carl Hopkins, Natalie Barker (music teacher) and Dr Gary Seiffert, aims to demonstrate the potential of using vibrotactile feedback – in other words, sound presented as vibration that is felt via the skin. The basic concept is that any musical performance can effectively be turned into a computer-controlled amplified performance where the sound from each instrument is taken to a mixing desk and sent back as a vibration signal to be presented to the body of the musician. The concept was proved feasible for the perception of notes from C1 up to G5 with safe levels of vibration presented to the skin of the hands and/or feet.

Feeling the difference

The University of Liverpool Acoustics Research Unit approached The Royal School for the Deaf Derby to see how the vibrotactile approach would work in an educational setting. Vibrotactile equipment was set up in the classroom to see if it improved the children’s ability to understand music. The children were asked to play different electrical instruments while simultaneously placing their hands or bare feet on small LDS shakers from HBK and feel the sound. So instead of the music being delivered through vibrations in the ear, vibrations through the skin allow the children to perceive music.

Matthew Taylor, music teacher at the school commented that the equipment “has certainly given our children greater access to sound…particularly in the area of pitch, they are now beginning to make the connection between the vibration and the pitch of the note, where before, a lot of our students would get confused.” He continued, “It is changing the way I teach”. The pupils are also enthusiastic, and on entering the classroom immediately take off their shoes and socks even before the music lesson has started. The research also found that additional educational value was evident in behavioural changes with increased teamwork and social interaction between pupils.

[1] ‘Deaf’ refers to people are born deaf or experience hearing loss before spoken language is acquired and regard their deafness as part of their identity and culture rather than as a disability. They form the Deaf Community and are predominantly British Sign Language (BSL) users. (Source: www.deafax.org)

‘deaf’ refers to people who have become deafened or hard of hearing in later life, after they have acquired a spoken language and so usually identify themselves with the hearing community. They are more likely to use hearing aids and develop lipreading skills. (Source: www.deafax.org)