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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