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Music to our Ears – 4 ways Music Therapy supports those who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing

“It is obvious that not all hearing impaired people will be musical in its fullest sense. But, then neither are all hearing folk. What is needed is the opportunity to experiment in order to discover what musical abilities lie dormant in us” William G Fawkes, music teacher of the deaf 1975 – 1988

Four year old Kenny looks at the guitar anticipating the first strum. I strum the guitar and he looks into my face.  His teacher carefully puts his hearing aides into his ears and I strum again.  His face brightens with a huge smile and he hugs his teacher.  Over the next 45 minutes Kenny uses a mallet on a drum, sings on different pitches, and moves his body to the deep sounds he and I create together.. but his favourite feeling seems to be the feeling he gets when he lays his cheek on the guitar, closes his eyes and just feels the vibration on his face.

Music definitely has the capacity to reach everyone – of all ages and abilities –  but it requires the right applications in order to be truly successful to reach therapeutic goals.  This is when the expertise of the Music Therapist is used during assessment, facilitation and therapy.

Not only can music play a role in cognitive and language development, but it can also help develop speech and auditory skills,  crucial for individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing. Learning to sing and play rhythms and melodies on instruments helps discriminate differences in these musical elements that can then be translated to elements of speech and our acoustic ecology.

The relationship between music, cognitive development, and achievement has been greatly researched. Bilhartz et al. (2000) suggest a link between music and spatial reasoning abilities. Studies show that musical activity, such as playing an instrument, requires the same brain processes that are required for performing sorting activities and spatial-temporal reasoning. Because both music reasoning and spatial intelligence rely on similar patterns of brain development, the authors encourage music exposure especially in young children. Music programs in schools that focus heavily on pitch discrimination have also been significantly research. Learning to distinguish differences in music tones, children can practice the diverse pitch and intonation found in their own speaking voices (Atkins & Donovan, 1984; Walczyk, 1993).

We also know that participation in music activities can positively impact children’s emotional needs – the feelings they have about themselves and their roles in various settings. Music participation can help build a students’ confidence by providing the opportunity of creative expression and exploration in a music environment. Group participation in music activities helps students feel a part of the greater social community. Through music, students can experience the joy of being part of a group working together, creating something together. The boost in mood and confidence during music therapy later translates into other social settings at school, home and in the community. Bruscia (1998) explains that music therapy is “sound-centered … It emphasizes the sensory modality of hearing, it is ear-oriented. Thus, in the truest forms of music therapy most, if not all of the interventions used, center around the production or reception of sound… ultimately, music therapy is a sound experience” (p. 41) 

Today, individuals who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing are listening and appreciating music as a result of the tremendous advancements in technology.  Scientists from Georgetown University Medical Center (2015)  have identified that exposure to the beat in music, such as drums, can improve the emotional and social quality-of-life of cochlear implant users. The study suggests that like all persons, cochlear implant users can enjoy a myriad of musical benefits. The research highlights that music can refine the sense of rhythm, benefitting the perception of speech and can also boost feelings of enjoyment – something all children, like Kenny, can experience.

These same scientists remind us that “what we hear is what we feel and what we feel is what we hear.”



Atkins, A., & Donovan, M. (1984). A workable music education program for the hearing impaired. Volta Review, 86, 41-44.

Bilhartz, T.D., Bruhn, R.A., & Olson, J.E. (2000). The effect of early music training on child cognitive development. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 20, 615-636.

Brusica, K.E. (1998). Defining music therapy. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Georgetown University Medical Center. (2015, January 26). Cochlear implant users can hear, feel the beat in music. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 22, 2015 from

Walczyk, E.B. (1993). Music instruction and the hearing impaired. Music Educators Journal, 80, 42-44.