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'I believe deaf people are the best listeners in the world': Just another day as a deaf music critic

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I've been told that my job sounds like a punchline. I am a deaf music critic.

It is often assumed that deaf and hard of hearing people can't engage with music. Beethoven is considered like an anomaly. But, while there is no doubt that he was an extraordinarily talented composer and performer, he is far from alone. There are countless deaf people who have devoted their lives to music.

Neil Young and Brian Wilson have both spoken about how their hearing loss has informed their music. In Australia, the electro-pop band Alter Boy comprises of three Deaf or Hard of Hearing members. Deafblind pianist Michelle Stevens plays classical music and the blues for her TikTok audience. And there are several renowned deaf dancers and choreographers here too, including Elvin Lim, Jo Dunbar, Anna Seymour and the Deaf Indigenous Dance Group.

When it comes to reviewing music, I don't consider my hearing loss a liability. I believe that deaf people are the best listeners in the world.

I have learned to listen with my whole body

I was born profoundly deaf in my left ear. Since my late twenties, I have been progressively losing hearing in my right ear due to otosclerosis.

People are often shocked when I disclose that I am deaf. This used to upset me, as it felt like no one believed me. But now I consider it proof that I am an exceptionally skilled listener. Throughout my life, I have developed strategies to navigate social and professional interactions.

During conversations, consonants, syllables and even entire sentences slip past me. I need to quickly gather and piece together any information that is available. I do this by reading lips, facial expressions and body language.

I tend to avoid asking people to repeat themselves, as this can result in them just abandoning the conversation. Instead, I ask open-ended and inquiring questions. This can encourage someone to speak at length, which gives me more opportunities to pick up clues.

For years, I have memorised countless details about friends, family and colleagues. This makes deciphering any future conversations easier, as I have handy references to draw upon.

In short, I am always physically, mentally and emotionally present when talking with people. It is exhausting, but necessary.

I don't think my ability to listen with such rigour and intention makes me unique. I know many deaf people who listen for a living – whether they be lawyers, counsellors, teachers, academics or health professionals.

Ironically, I've learned that hearing people can be terrible at listening. There is even a whole genre of books devoted to teaching people how to be present during conversations.

Deaf people can teach hearing people how to listen

"My aim, really, is to teach the world to listen," says famous percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie in her TED Talk.

"It sounds quite simple, but actually it's a big, big job."

It's a big job, as most people believe that listening just occurs with the ears.

Dame Glennie is deaf. When playing with orchestras, she takes off her shoes and "hears" music through her feet. Dame Glennie has learned to tune instruments by feeling how sounds travel through her fingers and up her arms.

Music was a large part of my childhood; my siblings and I delighted in playing traditional Irish music.

I gravitated towards the accordion — it's solid, square shape felt reassuring. Holding it on my lap, the notes would rumble through my chest.

I continued to play the instrument for years.

Deafness is not always a steady state

My hearing fluctuates depending on how well I can concentrate. If I'm tired — whether from a lack of sleep or after a long Zoom meeting — I'm less able to make sense of sounds. They can blend into a thick blur.

When reviewing an album, I will listen to it at least six to eight times across several days. I deliberately schedule listening sessions in the morning, afternoon and evening. I study each song's spectrogram, which is a visual representations of sound waves. This allows me to see the architecture of a song.

I've come to relish this process of revisiting an album again and again. I believe that having to pay close attention to my own physical state makes me a better critic. It pushes me to go beyond just classifying music as simply good or bad.

Much like reading a book, I will explore an album from cover to cover.

The art, song titles, lyrics and liner notes inform an album's sonic landscape, and provide new entry points to songs.

Reviewing has also made me more aware of my synaesthesia. I experience sounds as taste, texture and visuals.

Initially, editors would strike out my descriptions. Now, I recognise that these descriptions aren't mistakes. They are gloriously deaf.

Fiona Murphy is the author of The Shape of Sound. She writes about Deafness and disability.

This article was commissioned as part of our coverage and celebration of International Day of People with Disability.


Source: ABC

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