How Ingenious Sign Language Interpreters Are Bringing Music to Life for the Deaf: Visualizing the Sound of Rhythm, Harmony & Melody

They are greet­ed like celebri­ties, with huge cheers and applause from the audi­ence on Jim­my Kim­mel Live!, for exam­ple, and it is well-deserved—they’re stars in their own right—but you prob­a­bly won’t rec­og­nize their names. They’re Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage inter­preters of pop music, and their craft involves not only a mas­tery of ASL, but also empa­thy, cre­ativ­i­ty, spon­tane­ity, dance, and some of the vivid inter­pre­tive moves of an air gui­tar cham­pi­on (a rare art form indeed).

In the video explain­er from Vox above, we meet one of the most tal­ent­ed of such inter­preters, the poised yet high­ly ani­mat­ed Amber Gal­loway Gal­lego. She has inter­pret­ed over 400 artists—“literally every artist you could think of”—including sta­di­um fillers like Adele, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and, as you can see below in video from last year’s Lol­la­palooza, the Red Hot Chili Pep­pers, whose melan­choly “Under the Bridge” takes on an entire­ly new ener­gy through Gallego’s expres­sive hands, face, and body (she first appears at 1:22).

As she explains to Vox, ASL inter­preters have for years com­mu­ni­cat­ed music to their audi­ences by dri­ly mak­ing the sign in Eng­lish for “Music” and leav­ing it at that. For Gal­lego, this was total­ly insuf­fi­cient. The deaf com­mu­ni­ty includes “a diverse group of peo­ple,” the Vox nar­ra­tor says, “who have a wide range of resid­ual hear­ing” across the audi­ble spec­trum. And every­one can feel music at cer­tain vol­umes, espe­cial­ly in a live con­cert set­ting. But an inter­preter, Gal­lego sug­gests, should be pre­pared not only to trans­late the lyrics of a song, but also the rhythm and, to a cer­tain degree, the melody and har­mo­ny, as well as the gen­er­al vibe, allow­ing deaf con­cert goers to be part of the total expe­ri­ence, as she puts it. (She can even inter­pret beat­box­ing.)

Since ASL already incor­po­rates emo­tive ges­tures and facial expres­sions, Gal­lego sim­ply adapt­ed and expand­ed these into a reper­toire of dance and musi­cal sign. She inter­prets fre­quen­cy, bring­ing her arms and hands clos­er to her waist for low­er sounds and at her shoul­ders and above for high notes. She com­mu­ni­cates pitch and rhythm with her face and hands in ways that both mim­ic the move­ment of sound waves and com­mu­ni­cate how much she her­self is groov­ing to a tune. “If we mere­ly show the sign for music,” Gal­lego insists, “then we are doing an injus­tice as an inter­preter.” Be warned, ASL inter­preters, she sets the bar high.

To con­vey the mean­ing of a song’s lyri­cal con­tent, a music inter­preter must trans­late a tremen­dous amount of word­play, rhyme, and metaphor into a visu­al form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. In the Vox video, Gal­lego shows how she does this effec­tive­ly at the speed of Eminem’s motor mouth in a song like “The Mon­ster,” and, though I can’t speak to the expe­ri­ence of some­one from the deaf com­mu­ni­ty, it’s impres­sive.

Gal­le­go’s enthu­si­as­tic inno­va­tion and embrace of music sign­ing has gen­er­at­ed dozens of video inter­pre­ta­tions on her YouTube chan­nel (includ­ing clas­sics of both Christ­mas and kids’ music and the irre­sistible glee of Chew­bac­ca mom). And she has also pro­mot­ed her rock-star-wor­thy work to mil­lions on TV shows like Total­ly Biased with W. Kamau Bell and, as I men­tioned, Jim­my Kim­mel Live!, where, as you can see above, she tag teams (for the win) with two fel­low music inter­preters in a bat­tle against rap­per Wiz Khal­i­fa.

via Vox

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hip Hop Hits Sung Won­der­ful­ly in Sign Lan­guage: Eminem’s “Lose Your­self,” Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yel­low” & More

“Alexan­der Hamil­ton” Per­formed with Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage

Learn 48 Lan­guages for Free Online: A Big Update to Our Mas­ter List

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Peter says:

    Being a musi­cian, and hav­ing a deaf moth­er, this brings me no small amount of joy.

  • ReverendTed says:

    I came look­ing for infor­ma­tion about this after catch­ing a glimpse of the inter­preters at ACL Fest this year. Even as some­one with­out an inti­mate knowl­edge of ASL, it was clear that more was being com­mu­ni­cat­ed than just the lyrics, which I thought was bril­liant. Even now, it was frus­trat­ing that near­ly the entire first page of results for an “ASL for music” Google search ref­er­enced the ASL sign for the word music.

  • Debbie Creekkiller says:

    This may be closed to ques­tions or com­ments. I did­n’t see any­thing say­ing it is.
    Ok now lol..I actu­al­ly have a very spe­cif­ic ques­tion. I.hope i phrase it cor­rect­ly.
    Is it against writ­ten trib­al law or spo­ken trib­al law for a Native Amer­i­can to teach a non-native hand talk ?
    I have a cou­ple of oth­er ques­tions but I need the answer to this 1st. Thank you so much for your time and atten­tion
    Deb­bie Creekkiller

  • Millie Hue says:

    I find it inter­est­ing when you said that trans­la­tors would also have to con­vey the rhythm of a song in the just lyrics of it when they are work­ing on a musi­cal piece. I nev­er took into account at ASL trans­la­tion ser­vices would have those things includ­ed in their process­es which can be a huge help for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ty. And I have a new­found respect for these pro­fes­sion­als because they can help peo­ple to expe­ri­ence life even if there is some­thing miss­ing from them.

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