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How a Collar Could Help Deaf People “Hear” Music

Most of us assume deaf people can’t register sound, let alone enjoy Rachmaninoff. Wrong. A conceptual device from German designer Frederik Podzuweit taps into the deaf’s ability to feel music.

Music for Deaf People collar

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Most of us assume deaf people can’t register sound, let alone enjoy
Rachmaninoff. Wrong. A conceptual device from German designer Frederik
Podzuweit taps into the deaf’s ability to feel music.

Music
for Deaf People is a collar that converts auditory input into vibrations, triggering the same sound-processing brain regions in those with full hearing. So instead of listening through your ears,
you effectively listen through your skin. The collar has
a special membrane substance, which responds to electricity, dispatching the vibrations of whatever you’re
playing–be it Sinatra or Sepultura–to your neck, shoulders, and
collarbone. Adjustable, it fits snugly around your neck so you could theoretically wear it jogging or at the gym–never mind that
it looks like something straight out of a Stormtrooper’s closet. (Nerds
probably think that’s a good thing.)

To the uninitiated, it
might seem like a nonstarter, a pointless gadget resigned to the annals
of air-conditioned T-shirts
and ShamWow! Why would
deaf people want to “hear” music? The answer, of course, is for the
same reason everyone else does: Music is one of life’s enduring
pleasures.

Music for Deaf People collar

There’s a lot of fascinating research into how
deaf people experience music. Researchers at Ryerson University designed a chair
that transmits musical vibrations along the back, turning sound into a sort of multi-sensory
cheesecake. One person described it like this: “The first time I used
the chair, I was blown away by the amount of information I could get
about music from the vibrations. For the first time in my life, I could
feel sad or happy because of how the music vibrations felt on my skin.
I never felt those kinds of feelings before when music was played.”

Music for Deaf People collar

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It’s even possible, in certain cases, that deaf people experience music more powerfully because they can’t hear; as Oliver Sacks tells it in Musicophilia, the
auditory cortex might become extra-sensitive when hearing slips.
Beethoven, you’ll recall, was completely deaf when he composed his
dazzling Symphony No. 9.

Music for Deaf People

The main drawback we see in Music for
Deaf People is that the collar seems terribly uncomfortable. On hot
days, a big hunk of plastic is the last thing you want around your
neck. Would the concept work just as well around your wrist or your
bicep? If anyone has any ideas, we’re all, um, ears.

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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