FEATURE: The Sound of Silence: The Gift of Hearing and Opening Up New Worlds



The Sound of Silence


ALL PHOTOS: Unsplash 

The Gift of Hearing and Opening Up New Worlds


MOST of us will never have to go through…


something as horrifying as losing our hearing or having to live with a disability as severe as that. We do not often think about those who are less fortunate and do not get to experience music like everyone else. As I review music and rely on it so heavily; I could not imagine having a world closed off and not being able to hear sound at all. In a way, it is like having something removed and being deprived. If you are born without the ability to hear, then you could argue there is nothing lost and (they) do not know what they are missing out on. I wonder whether we are accommodating those who cannot hear and whether we consider those who are unable to enjoy music like you and me. Imagining seeing others around you; digesting and celebrating music and able to form groups and clans – those who can share experiences and come together in time to the beat. We have all had those experiences of being at gigs and getting lost in sound. Others are more comfortable listening from home and experiencing music in a more intimate and safe space. Whatever your preference; think back to times when music has opened your mind and you have been flabbergasted and struck. We all have those moments when we cannot speak and are unable to take all the sounds in we are experiencing. It is a profound and wonderful thing to behold and be a part of.


Think about the reverse: not being able to listen to music or hear anything at all. How do we explain to deaf/those with partial hearing what music is like and how it makes us all feel. In the way we need to make more accommodations and considerations for the physically impaired and those with physical disabilities; we do not really look at blind and deaf people and make music more tangible for them. The reason I am exploring hearing and experiencing music in new ways is an inspirational and heart-warming story that has come through recently. I was tuned into BBC Radio 6 Music – no big shocks there! – and heard about Joanne Milne. This article takes up the story:

As part of the regular slot on her show, this week's Memory Tapes, which now airs on Wednesday mornings, was created by a man called Tremayne Crossley, who had put together a mix tape for his friend who was slowly getting her hearing backThe woman in question, Joanne Milne, from Gateshead, had been born deaf and is registered blind, but is now able to hear music after 40 years due to successful cochlear implants.

While she had the operation months ago, today her good friend shared the experience with (Lauren) Laverne.

Crossley said: “Jo has recently had a bilateral cochlear implant in an attempt to restore her hearing, this is being gradually switched on over five sessions.

“The volume has to be increased slowly to allow the brain to adjust to the new information coming from the ears. Jo told me about a guy who went grey over a one month period due to the shock of hearing how noisy the world actually is”.

It was with this in mind that Jo asked me to put a playlist of songs together, songs that I thought she needed to hear or that would form an ‘Introduction To Music’ playlist.

“I said it would be an absolute privilege but when I sat down to start I realised how monumentally difficult it would be, and what a responsibility.

"I decided I needed to set some parameters for myself, so I rejected everything from before her birth (which got rid of anything classical or deciding what Beatles tunes to use!) and restricted myself to one tune from each year of her life”.

Listening to her talk with Laverne and you can hear how Milnes’s progress is coming along. It has been a few years since she was fitted with an implant and things are not quite perfect. It is not as easy as switching the device on and everything being okay. It is strange hearing for the first time and something as complex and rich as music does not instantly click and become a natural accompaniment. What was wonderful to hear was how, in a way, she was making up for lost time and experiencing a new language. David Bowie, she said, was a big draw and she spent time exploring his music, iconography and imagery – a true pioneer that, until recently, she has only been able to appreciate in a visual sense. There are other benefits away from music when it comes to the gift of hearing – people talking and the birds singing – but music is much more overt, complex and fascinating than any conversation and part of nature.


The mixtape Tremayne Crossley put together for his friend was an insight and opening to a side of life she had not had access to previously. The listener response after hearing that mixtape was immense and filled with love. It brings me back to my original thought: What would we do if we were in the same position as Joanne Milne?! It would be such a strange and frightening experience having people’s voices entering our mind and being able to hear. It seems so routine and basic for us but, to Milne, it was a revelation and explosion. I feel the pleasure of music and all it gives cannot be quantified and its weight is immense. Having that removed, or not being able to enjoy it, seems like an immense tragedy and deprivation. Do we have deafness wrong and assume that it is a binary thing?

Hearing people always assume that there is only one way to enjoy music, and that is by listening/ hearing to it. In a world dominated and driven by able bodied privilege, that assumption is prevalent, and when a deaf person shows up at a concert, heads turn. However, deaf people can enjoy music in ways that differ from how hearing people enjoy music, but they can definitely derive pleasure out of it.

First of all, deafness does not mean that someone does not hear anything at all – there are varying levels of deafness. Second, deaf people can feel the vibrations produced by the music being played and consume those vibrations through their body. The humming sound produced by picking a bass string or the boom of the drums can be felt very easily by them”.

There is a difference between the profoundly deaf (those who cannot hear any sound at all) and those able to hear some sounds/vibrations. In any case; having limited hearing is a burden and strain that few of us can understand. I wonder whether we need to do more to accommodate and support those who are deaf and unable to get as close to music as you and me. Is America starting to make waves and progress?! An article published last year explored the subject in more depth:

As pop culture has begun to better recognize the experiences of deaf Americans, there have also been signs of progress for the Deaf community in sports and politics. The Obama White House included two deaf women in prominent roles – Leah Katz-Hernandez, the first deaf person to serve as the receptionist of the United States (one of the first people to greet White House visitors), and Claudia Gordon, the public engagement adviser for the disability community in the Office of Public Engagement, who is also the first deaf black female attorney in the US. Around the same time, Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman became the first deaf Super Bowl champion during Super Bowl 48; Coleman’s status as the NFL’s first deaf offensive player prompted a major halftime commercial by Duracell batteries (the tie-in being Coleman’s use of battery-powered hearing aids). In 2016, Smirnoff vodka featured deaf dance instructor Chris Fonseca as part of its inclusivity-minded “We’re Open” campaign.

Though Deaf culture has nudged closer to mainstream visibility in the past several years, progress remains stunted in spaces where DHH people aren’t considered part of the equation to begin with. Music festivals in particular have been slow to include the DHH community, despite the industry’s explosive growth over the past quarter century. In 2014 alone, 32 million people attended at least one US music festival, according to Nielsen Music”.

I have ignored the complexities of deafness and being unable to hear: it is a spectrum and we cannot take a binary approach to the subject. This makes answers and thorough investigation more complex and time-consuming:

Hearing people tend think of deafness as one side of an on or off switch — you can hear everything or nothing — but deafness is actually a spectrum. You can range from profoundly deaf to some ability to hear sound above a certain threshold to hard-of-hearing with the ability to process speech, usually with the help of hearing aids or implant; smembers of the DHH community will also identify themselves as "Big 'D' deaf" to indicate they're part of the Deaf community, or "Little 'd' deaf" to indicate they are not involved in the Deaf community even though they have no hearing. The DHH community is also a large one: According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), a quarter of the population will have “disabling hearing loss”between the ages of 65 and 74; it jumps to 50% by the time people reach age 75. Music fans exist across the entire DHH spectrum and have devised many alternate ways of listening when their ears are of limited use”.


Looking back at Joanne Milne and how she must have experienced music before she had an implant – there would have been stresses and drawbacks, for sure. A lot of venues do not offer a signing service and interpreters; there is limited access and, often, sight can be blocked by fans and constructs – it makes understanding what is being sung and performed even harder! I will take one more snippet from the aforementioned article that talked with an American woman who has faced discrimination and struggles when attending gigs:

“…Krista Reese is one of them. She’s been coming to Lollapalooza since she was 21 (she’s 26 now) and is enjoying the Zara Larsson set so much I almost feel guilty asking her to talk about times when festgoing wasn’t so great. “People would say, ‘Why do you get to be up front? You can’t hear, so you should be in the back,’” says Reese, who is hard-of-hearing. “I’ve never been close enough. Before this, I only listened to dance music, because I could feel the beat. But now I can branch out to other genres.” We both watch the ASL interpreter while Larsson sings “Make That Money Girl.” The music morphs from audible to tactile as the interpreter smacks her pinched fingers against her open palm to form the sign for money; you can imagine the fat stack of bills slapping back and forth in the interpreter's hands”.

A lot of us know very little about those with disabilities and the plight many deaf people face – whether they are profoundly deaf or fall in other areas of the spectrum. The sheer delight and epiphany of hearing for the first time and letting music in cannot be explained in words and is something many of us (luckily) will never have to discover. There are great charities who are raising awareness regarding deafness and music; ensuring there is better access and their needs are taking into consideration. I do wonder how much is being done and how many are being denied the opportunity to enjoy music like the majority of us. Many are not fortunate enough to have cochlear implants and that sort of opportunity but, for others, – a lot of deaf people feel part of a culture and do not want to give up what they have, in a sense – their needs are being ignored. I feel we should be more conscientious and thoughtful when it comes to those unable to hear; those who struggle and want to be part of the action. Hearing inspiration stories like that of Joanne Milne and her new adventures make me feel very lucky I am able to enjoy music without hindrance: I think about others and how they experience music in a very different way. I hope, alongside the great stories and terrifically uplifting moments, we spare a moment and ensure we are doing everything we can to ensure those with hearing difficulties…


ARE not being overlooked and ignored.