How a Deaf person came to write a course in music

Image: A painting of a girl with long red dreadlocks and sparkly green eyes. She has a black cross over her left ear, and red lips. She wears a red T-shirt with a black stencil of a face on it. She is holding a guitar. To her right is large text: ‘GarageBand Songwriting for Deaf and HOH, ‘ In the background is a blue textured wall with grungy black dots, piano keys and music notes.

You might think that because I’m Deaf, I don’t enjoy music. That’s not the case at all. I love music as much as any hearing person. The problem is that most of the time I can’t access it properly.

One of the issues is that my hearing aids cannot selectively hear. They flatten sounds, and this means that when there are multiple sounds (or instruments) happening at the same time, then I can’t distinguish between them, and sometimes the end result is more like white noise. Interestingly, my brain seems able to learn to make some sense of this chaos, and with certain tracks that are not too complicated, if someone takes the time to teach me how to hear it – say by showing me a visual of the notes with their hands and singing along so I can lipread them – then with many repetitions I can sometimes start to hear and enjoy the song myself. The downside of this is that I need someone to provide this visual of the song over and over, many times, before I can memorise it to the extent that I can hear it myself. It’s not easy to come by such a person, as usually they are sick to death of the song long before I have memorised it! I notice that my aural memory is not very good – probably from lack of practice as I don’t use it much in daily life.

Since I was a child, my favourite music has always been when someone will just sing for me. That’s perfect as there’s only one note happening at a time, and I can watch the singer’s face to pick up the mood and energy, and lipread the words. But getting people to sing for me is remarkably difficult – people are so shy, embarrassed about their voice. As if I would judge them! I wouldn’t know a bad voice if it hit me on the head!

A few years ago I became even more deaf than I have been for most of my life. Unfortunately this meant that the songs I have painstakingly learned to hear over the years were no longer accessible, much to my intense frustration. It took a while to work out what was happening. It turns out that I have lost total hearing for some pitches, but other pitches I can still hear. So as the notes go up and down, it can sound like the song stops and starts. It’s hideous! For a couple of years, I missed music desperately.

Thanks to NDIS funding, I have been able to pay a musician to help me access music. This has been life-changing! I have worked with a few different musicians now, and after discovering which notes I can hear and which I can’t, they have able to make adaptations of songs for me utilising only notes and instruments I can hear comfortably.

They ensured there wasn’t too much happening at the same time, and adjusted the volume of the vocal track to make it loud enough for me to still hear when there were backing instruments. In most conventional songs the vocals get lost for me after the first verse or so, as the instrumentation for the song builds and drowns it out.

A particularly fun bonus of having someone record a track specifically tailored to my hearing is that I can also tailor the words. I have had a wonderful time changing the words to all my favourite songs, making them more feminist, more lesbian, and more relevant to my own life. The more I do this, the better that part of my brain works. Once it seemed like a miracle that anyone could produce rhyming phrases to tell a story, but now after plenty of practice it seems I can do it too.

One of the musicians I have been working with is Sarah Ward, of Yana Alana and Queen Kong fame, and it has been an immensely enjoyable relationship. Her music and politics are so out there that I never feel embarrassed to send her the lyrics for the songs I want to record, and she is so patient when I request change after change to the levels in the song because some instruments are making it hard to hear the vocals.

My life changed one day when Sarah said to me, ‘Asphyxia, I think you are ready to begin writing your own songs.’

What? Me? Write a song from scratch? The idea floored me and excited me beyond belief. I realised I had never thought a Deaf person could write their own music. And yet, it seemed the perfect solution to Deaf access to music, because who better than me to pick the perfect combination of instruments and levels and notes?

Sarah held my hand (metaphorically, thanks to Covid-19!) and walked me through the basics – how to use GarageBand, how to select notes that don’t clash with each other, how to construct a song from scratch, and even how to make a song that fits within a certain genre. I realised that the process can actually be remarkably formulaic, and that any deaf or hard of hearing person could learn to create tailored music for themselves if they took a course in it. The problem is that courses out there are designed for hearing people, telling students to listen to X to hear how it sounds in order to build their knowledge. But you can learn to write a song from scratch with only very nominal hearing, if it is taught the right way.

Sarah and I were fumbling around in the dark as we worked together to figure out how to get me the knowledge I needed.

After much blood, sweat and tears, I believe I have finally pulled together a simple and crystal clear process by which any deaf person can make music tailored to their own hearing. I want to share it with other deaf and hard of hearing people, so that if the idea of music appeals, you have a pathway in to access it.

Anything else you want to know? Write your questions in the box below to email me. That will help me improve this course. Thanks! Asphyxia

View my music course, GarageBand Songwriting for Deaf and HoH here.