Today I watched a TED Talk about the musicality of sign language. In the enchanting video, Christine Sun Kim, an artist and TED fellow, educates the audience on how musicality does indeed play an important role in sign language. As a casual musician, I thought it was really interesting to learn from Christine and her experience with music in a world where she doesn’t “hear” it the same way non-deaf people do.
If you are hearing person intrigued by the idea of a deaf person understanding music, I’ll let Christine explain:
In Deaf culture, movement is equivalent to sound. This is a sign for “staff” in ASL. A typical staff contains five lines. Yet for me, signing it with my thumb sticking up like that doesn’t feel natural. That’s why you’ll notice in my drawings, I stick to four lines on paper.
…I was surprised to see the similarities between music and ASL. For example, a musical note cannot be fully captured and expressed on paper. And the same holds true for a concept in ASL. They’re both highly spatial and highly inflected —meaning that subtle changes can affect the entire meaning of both signs and sounds.
I’d like to share with you a piano metaphor, to have you have a better understanding of how ASL works. So, envision a piano. ASL is broken down into many different grammatical parameters. If you assign a different parameter to each finger as you play the piano — such as facial expression, body movement, speed, hand shape and so on, as you play the piano — English is a linear language, as if one key is being pressed at a time. However, ASL is more like a chord — all 10 fingers need to come down simultaneously to express a clear concept or idea in ASL. If just one of those keys were to change the chord, it would create a completely different meaning. The same applies to music in regards to pitch, tone and volume. In ASL, by playing around with these different grammatical parameters, you can express different ideas.
Christine “hears” music by understanding that movement has tempo and rhythm. This is something that I, too, have noticed in my own body language, but if you watch Christine (or other members of the deaf community) communicate in sign language, you’ll see that this tempo of movement is even more pronounced. In this way, the deaf community can indeed interpret sound with their body and their eyes in a way that is parallel to how we interpret it.
Music is actually a very visual form of expression. For example, take a look and listen to this visual accompaniment to Hall of the Mountain King which was created in Line Rider by Doodle Chaos.
In the video, every beat of the song is met with an accompanying movement: a fall, a slide, a flip, etc. The way the visual is drawn in time with the sound makes it so much more compelling. If you were to watch the visual without the music, you would still feel the rush, the urgency, and the chaos that ensues as the video’s tempo increases.
It’s incredible what a carefully timed hand sign or precisely drawn line can do to bring emphasis to music and sound. I’m very grateful and fortunate to enjoy hearing music, but I think there is a lot the world can do to make it more accessible to those who cannot hear. I don’t have any solid solutions yet, but great change often starts with a hopeful thought and a meaningful conversation.