Evelyn Glennie (a Musician Who Happens to Be Deaf) Shows How We Can Listen to Music with Our Entire Bodies

Com­pos­er and per­cus­sion­ist Dame Eve­lyn Glen­nie, above, feels music pro­found­ly. For her, there is no ques­tion that lis­ten­ing should be a whole body expe­ri­ence:

Hear­ing is basi­cal­ly a spe­cial­ized form of touch. Sound is sim­ply vibrat­ing air which the ear picks up and con­verts to elec­tri­cal sig­nals, which are then inter­pret­ed by the brain. The sense of hear­ing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. If you are stand­ing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibra­tion? The answer is both. With very low fre­quen­cy vibra­tion the ear starts becom­ing inef­fi­cient and the rest of the body’s sense of touch starts to take over. For some rea­son we tend to make a dis­tinc­tion between hear­ing a sound and feel­ing a vibra­tion, in real­i­ty they are the same thing. It is inter­est­ing to note that in the Ital­ian lan­guage this dis­tinc­tion does not exist. The verb ‘sen­tire’ means to hear and the same verb in the reflex­ive form ‘sen­tir­si’ means to feel.

It’s a phi­los­o­phy born of necessity—her hear­ing began to dete­ri­o­rate when she was 8, and by the age of 12, she was pro­found­ly deaf. Music lessons at that time includ­ed touch­ing the wall of the prac­tice room to feel the vibra­tions as her teacher played.

While she acknowl­edges that her dis­abil­i­ty is a pub­lic­i­ty hook, it’s not her pre­ferred lede, a conun­drum she explores in her “Hear­ing Essay.” Rather than be cel­e­brat­ed as a deaf musi­cian, she’d like to be known as the musi­cian who is teach­ing the world to lis­ten.

In her TED Talk, How To Tru­ly Lis­ten, she dif­fer­en­ti­ates between the abil­i­ty to trans­late nota­tions on a musi­cal score and the sub­tler, more soul­ful skill of inter­pre­ta­tion. This involves con­nect­ing to the instru­ment with every part of her phys­i­cal being. Oth­ers may lis­ten with ears alone. Dame Eve­lyn encour­ages every­one to lis­ten with fin­gers, arms, stom­ach, heart, cheek­bones… a phe­nom­e­non many teenagers expe­ri­ence organ­i­cal­ly, no mat­ter what their ear­buds are plug­ging.

And while the vibra­tions may be sub­tler, her phi­los­o­phy could cause us to lis­ten more atten­tive­ly to both our loved ones and our adver­saries, by stay­ing attuned to visu­al and emo­tion­al pitch­es, as well as slight vari­a­tions in vol­ume and tone.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Did Beethoven Com­pose His 9th Sym­pho­ny After He Went Com­plete­ly Deaf?

Hear a 20 Hour Playlist Fea­tur­ing Record­ings by Elec­tron­ic Music Pio­neer Pauline Oliv­eros (RIP)

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

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  She’ll is appear­ing onstage in New York City this June as one of the clowns in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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