A World Without Music

I love what music does to my ear drums. How it affects my emotions. For that matter, though, I love the mystery of flavors on my taste buds or feeling the force of the ocean on my body. The existential appreciation for these sensory experiences stop there. I will not write an ode to the grandeur of a melody, ever. As much as I love music, I have to believe life would be just as good without it. Let me tell you why.

An ASL interpreter signs my last concert at St. Thomas. That’s me in the glasses second row to the left of the bass thinking deeply about the meaning of music.

My odd attitude about music starts with classic rock. As a teen I didn’t care for it as much as my friends, but it took a while to realize why. Back when dad was the strongest man in the world he was telling us why the Stones, Led Zeppelin or the Eagles were king. Well your dad, but not mine. The Stones taste like stale vegetables to me, probably because my parents didn’t listen to them. They’ve never heard a Beatles song. In fact, they have never endorsed a musician in my life. My parents are deaf.

Because of this, I had one degree less of indoctrination to the goodness of sound. My parents were not on the sidelines of my eventual passion for music. They let me try piano and french horn lessons. They took me to before school choir rehearsals when I started liking the cute sopranos. They went to my choir concerts. If it wasn’t for their tolerance, a classic rock bias wouldn’t have been my only musical complaint. Inevitably like many, I came to know music personally, and for a while now, I’ve been in love with both making and listening to music. I’ve just crucially known that it isn’t an essential love for a fulfilling life.

I’ve lived with a passion for music for some time now. But if Beethoven didn’t exist I think I’d be the same person. Suppose we had dog’s ears and harmonies didn’t hold sentiment. What would music be then? Would humans behave differently and know the world less? Although music is a remarkable thing, it is not out of this world, nor of a complexity beyond that of our other senses.

It’s not that I can’t be willing to know a world exists my parents aren’t allowed to access. Instead it’s that I’ve seen the fullness of their lives and interactions enough to know that the same things music does for you and me they experience in other ways. They know how to appreciate motion on a muted television in ways hearing people cannot conceptualize. There is a wonder to music just like there is with plenty of other non-essential aspects of our humanity. Football games have changed lives, too. Instead of music and sound being a given, we should consider it as an option. Sometimes one with consequences.

We live in a hearing world that communicates predominantly by ear and mouth. This truth is unquestionably marginalizing in social, legal, and commercial arenas for the deaf. There are far more elegant writers (many deaf) on this topic, but for now I’ll attempt to summarize the source of difference: the isolation that may come from being deaf has more to do with being ostracized in a world that prefers verbal communication, than from a lack of access to the intrinsic qualities of sound. To begin to understand deafhood first imagine sound as an option, not simply the absence of something you’ve lived with.

While music is a remarkably elegant vessel for sharing emotion, it can be replaced. Maybe not with one substituted sense, but it is at least the case that one is not deprived of experiencing the world if they do not experience sound. My passion for music is no different from a woodworker’s or a painter’s passion. The art of sound begins with recognizing that melody is like all other physical experiences. Or think of it in a broader sense. A rigorous definition of happiness, if it can be grounded at all, probably won’t be measured in frequencies or timbres, but something common to all sensory input.

The only special status to sound is it’s popularity, and we all know what popular attitudes tend to do to unpopular ones: drown them out. While music has been wonderful to me, it has more to do with my willingness as a human to be subject to new experiences, and moved by them. To label that experience as fundamentally sound-driven, is audist.

Update: A more off-the-cuff version on Quora, and subsets of the above have been revised for guest lectures. All this to say a revised essay seems inevitable.

10 thoughts on “A World Without Music

  1. Thank you for your unique perspective on music from both the hearing perspective and the deaf perspective. After reading this blog entry, I have a few questions and/or comments on your opinion. You seem to express an opinion in which you oppose deaf individuals integrating into the hearing world due to being ostracized. Now, I do agree with you in some regards, but I do want to further understand your viewpoint as a student interested in this field. Did you think that society’s reasoning for wanting deaf individuals to integrate into a hearing world is an innate desire for wanting our species to thrive and survive? Now, I do understand that nowadays that deaf individuals are fully capable of surviving in our environment due to resources and other technologies. However, humans, like other animals, innately rely on all of their senses for survival. An animal deprived of a sense whether it be hearing or vision, automatically decreases its chance of survival. For example, if a tornado siren were to go off, how would a deaf individual know that he or she should take cover? By not being able to hear such important warnings, a deaf individual may end up risking his or her life. Therefore, I disagree with you and think that integrating deaf individuals into a hearing world is much more than our society’s preference for verbal communication. I think that our innate nature wants to see our species to continue to thrive, and because humans are able to create technologies to allow us to utilize our full capabilities, why not increase a friend’s or a family’s member chance of survival?

    1. Marissa,

      Thank you for your observations. You raise many issues which are crucial to the broader discussion about the identity of Deaf people, especially as hearing people see it (but probably not as all Deaf people do). You’ve inspired me to write a post about it, which I have linked below, however here is a summary of my thoughts.

      In short, the reason why one wouldn’t want to increase survivability for the Deaf by addressing their ears is two-fold: it’s not worth it, and it’s not always wanted. Deaf people aren’t dying from tornados. They’re dying from old age, cancer, diabetes, car accidents. And if you want to target deaf people’s survivability, then the trick is to figure out how to better communicate general well-being strategies. In the case of tornados, text-alerts will work fine for the modern deaf individual who probably has a cell-phone. (Point-in-case, my deaf mother is usually the one informing me when a tornado may/may not be in my area. I tend to block out loud noises.) However, of course there are differences that lead deaf people to want accommodations. The problem is, for too long hearing people have been defining where these cases are, rather than simply asking the deaf what they would like accommodated.

      Further, the argument from adaptation is a slippery one. If you look at the list of most common deaths and health risks, it is easy to see a few evolutionary mechanisms which, while once were useful, are today the very cause of problems (sex drive, craving for fatty foods, aggression, backs designed for running not sitting, etc.). The dawn of civilized man was also the day we started letting go of the biological definitions in search of other ways of finding well-being. Hearing status is no exception to this.

      Please don’t hesitate to respond to the following post. I really appreciate your raising these thoughts!


  2. Mark, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences in this blog entry and in our Manually Coded English class this past Wednesday. I can always relate to individuals coming from or identifying with a different background, group, or community. This is because I find myself different from others a lot of the time, and in so many ways. For example, I am, like you, multilingual. In fact, English is my second language. And even though I am fascinated by languages, and am hoping to become fluent in ASL, as a third language, I have been in awkward situations before due to a language barrier. Sometimes, the only way I can explain what I am thinking is to say what I am thinking in my mother tongue, Arabic. And now that I have been continuously exposed to the English language for almost five years, the opposite is also true. I can guarantee that if you were to listen to a 5-minute conversation I am having with, let’s say, my dad, you will be able to identify a number of English words, and possibly sentences. It is very likely that I will use both Arabic and English words/sentences when speaking with someone who is fluent in both languages, simply because some expressions only exist in one or the other. There is not an Arabic equivalent to the English word “already”, for example. So if you want to say “I already did this” in Arabic, you might say “I did this” or “I did this a long time ago” or “I did this and finished doing it yesterday”. Likewise, there is an Arabic word that is said to people when or after they cough, kind of like saying “bless you” to people when they sneeze. It is only one word but it implies “I wish you good health”. It even sounds weird when I explain it in English, but in Arabic it sounds very natural. I remember asking my American friend when I first came to the United States: “What do you say to someone coughing?” Her facial expressions answered my question, as she raised her eyebrows in complete wonder. The question that keeps coming up now that I am thinking about these incidences is: As a hearing person, have you ever found it easier to express yourself in ASL as opposed to English?

    1. Atheer, thanks for your observations with regard to cultural/linguistic differences in Arabic vs. English. When I was in the military I translated Arabic and Pashto, so I have a sense of what you’re describing, however my language skills for both have decreased a lot from lack of use. When I was learning Arabic one of the hardest things to get over was how often a 1:1 translation does not exist. The boundaries and definitions of concepts are rarely the same between languages which means constantly looking for a “different way to say it.”

      In sign language the same kinds of limited 1:1 mappings exist but they literally “look” different. Essentially it is the difference between ASL and MCE. In principle one can sign concept-for-concept and not be “wrong”, but in ASL it works much better to structure the information spatially. In this way, a lot of times things that are interesting to say — a sentence where the punch line or crucial fact comes first or last– are less interesting to sign, where the concept’s spatial location is not as exciting. Conversely, it’s often extremely engaging to “paint” scenes in sign language with a level of detail that may not be as verbally interesting. For example, imagine the phrase, “The guy was standing around the corner, unaware of the approaching enemy.” In sign, I could add a lot of emphasis by slowing down movement signs, and playing off the visual space between agents. It is much easier to capitalize on the tension. For speech, it is harder to consider the changing reality for both agents in the story.

      If I’m translating a story from a speaker to signer, the way details play out over time might be boring or even irrelevant to the same story told in sign, and vice versa. Here’s a gloss of the above scene in English, then in “ASL” transliterated:

      English “A man stands at the end of a corridor watching for an incoming enemy. Unbeknownst to him, the enemy is coming from a perpendicular hall. The enemy approaches slowly, while the waiting man becomes complacent, tired. Finally, the enemy rounds the corner and takes the man by surprise.”

      ASL (bracketed words are not signed but understood): “man stands around corner [of the] hall [that the enemy] is approaching [from]. [The man is] ignorant [of the approach]. [The enemy] walks, walks, walks, [the agent is] ignorant, ignorant ignorant, walk, ignorant, walk [pause], ATTACK.”

  3. Mark, thank you for sharing your thoughts regarding music and deafness. I very much admire your writing style and unique way of expressing your opinion in this post. I listened to your presentation in my Manually Coded English class on Wednesday, which I thoroughly enjoyed as well. I am hearing, and I am not fluent in sign language. It is this reason that I cannot help but think about music for a deaf person as the absence of something that I’ve lived with forever, as you mentioned. Music is very important to me, but it was not until the end of your post when you discuss how we define happiness that I thought about what music truly represents. I listen to music on the walk to class, when I’m studying, or when I’m in a social situation. However, when I think about times when I’ve been my happiest, music is not really part of the equation. I really loved how you define happiness as something that is common to all sensory input. That’s a remarkable statement that I agree with. I’m curious to know what some of your favorite memories were as a child with deaf parents. What’s an example of a time you had where you experienced happiness in a way that was unique to your family, that other people with hearing parents maybe could not have experienced? Thanks again for your post, it’s wonderful.

    1. Janet, that is a great question that honestly, I don’t know if I have a quick answer to. Part of what makes it difficult is that most of my childhood can be divided into either experiences that were completely similar to my peers with hearing friends, or experiences that are different not because of the deaf element, but because of how it is defined by a broader hearing context. For example, many positive experiences of translating or even “being” deaf with my parents so that we didn’t have to deal with certain social situations are not examples of non-hearing experiences, but examples of the reality of a hearing–deaf difference. Another set of experiences that are close to your question but I would have to think about precisely how, are those I had with the Deaf camping club, where essentially the social setting was almost exclusively Deaf culture. I’ll think about this some more and get back to you, though!

  4. Hi Mark! Like others have said before me, I wanted to again thank you for sharing your thoughts and perspectives about music and sound in relation to the Deaf culture. I enjoyed reading your post and appreciate your willingness to talk about and share your experiences with the culture. I think all too often people’s comfort and familiarity with their own culture makes it hard to take on the perspectives and understand the beliefs of other cultures. I know I am guilty of that at least. In your writing, you raise a few interesting points that I have never considered before. For example, you mention that music should be seen as an option rather than a necessity in life. Being a hearing person, I think I have always viewed music, and even sound in general, a necessity. Sound is something that I have been exposed to since birth and has developed into an important sense I rely on for communication, learning, safety, and entertainment purposes. Given the fact that sound has always been present in my life, it is hard to imagine a world without it. A world where it is not an essential need. However, I very much appreciate that your writing has challenged that way I have always view music and sound. I can grasp how this auditory input would not be crucial for a fulfilling life. I may never truly understand a world without music or sound but I can imagine that I wouldn’t feel deprived without that input. You also mention that music is an option that may come with consequences. I would be curious to know what you mean by this and what believe these consequences are. While your writing has more or less convinced that music is an optional sensory input, it is hard for me to think of consequences that could arise from music if it is indeed an option in an individual’s life. Thank you again for your thoughts!

    1. Aimee, You’re very right to notice that it is difficult to see past one’s own experiences, and I would go farther to say this is more typical when one’s culture is the majority culture. As you note, the preference for music, even if nearly ubiquitous, is still fundamentally a preference. The consequences I’m referring to are consequences of thinking that hearing is a right or an inherent value of being human. When 99% of the world shares the same preference (to hear and fundamentally value hearing), it impacts the other 1% deeply. Most don’t recognize it as a choice. One possible, and historically common consequence, is that the medical practitioner assumes a deaf person wants hearing, should want hearing, and is willing to sacrifice in order to try to be hearing. The client is not often given the opportunity to explore the personal value in hearing status without audist-defined consequences.

  5. Mark, I really enjoyed reading your take on music and how it relates to Deaf culture. At first, I was a little surprised to hear someone who both is passionate about music and identifies with Deaf culture say that life would be just fine without it. However, I think you offer a nice mindset in thinking about a world without music when you say that music and sound should not be thought of as a given, but an option. I think looking at others lives and tallying everything they’re missing out on creates pity and a negative view of life. Taking the perspective that music is just one part of life, or an option, that makes us happy gives way to a more open mindset. We can see the differences of life with and without sound as creating different, but equally satisfying enjoyments in life.

    Also, thank you for taking time out of your day to present to our signing class this morning. After you mentioned your blog about music, I just had to read it!

    1. Thank you, Courtney, I like your take-away. I’m really glad you checked out this post. I would say though, that it’s easier said than done, attempting to remove judgment about others’ experiences, when they’re obviously different from yours. But in my view it makes it no less necessary, and all the more important to work on. Thanks for listening and reading, and sharing your thoughts.

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