Nov 2017 New York Times
For those who are deaf, music is not just about sound. At age 20, Rachel Kolb received cochlear implants that gave her partial hearing. In virtual reality, experience how music felt for her, before and after. She is a Rhodes scholar and a doctoral student at Emory University focusing on American literature, deaf and disability studies, and bioethics.
When I got a cochlear implant seven years ago, after being profoundly deaf for my entire life, hearing friends and acquaintances started asking me the same few questions: Had I heard music yet? Did I like it? What did it sound like? I was 20 years old then. Aside from the amplified noises I’d heard through my hearing aids, which sounded more like murmurs distorted by thick insulation swaddling, I had never heard music, not really. But that did not mean I wasn’t in some way musical. I played piano and guitar as a child, and I remember enjoying the feel of my hands picking out the piano keys in rhythm, as well as the rich vibrations of the guitar soundboard against my chest. I would tap out a beat to many other daily tasks, too. For several years, I became privately obsessed with marching in rhythm when walking around the block, counting out my steps like a metronome: One, two. One, two. Watching visual rhythms, from the flow of water to clapping hands and the rich expression of sign language, fascinated me. But in the hearing world, those experiences often didn’t count as music. And I gathered that my inability to hear music, at least in the view the people I knew, seemed unthinkable.
“So you can’t hear the beautiful music right now?” I remember someone asking me when I was an undergraduate. We sat in a restaurant where, presumably, some ambient melody played in the background. When I said no, she replied, “Wow, that makes me feel sad.” Sad - this is how some hearing people reacted to my imagined lifetime without music. Did it mean that some part of my existence was unalterably sad, too? I resisted this response. My life was already beautiful and rich without music, just different. And even if listening to music did not yet feel like a core part of my identity, I could be curious.
Once I got the cochlear implant, a transmitter of rough-hewn sound that set my skull rattling and my nerves screeching, I found that music jolted my core in ways I could not explain. Deep percussion rhythms burrowed into my brain and pulsed outward. A violin’s melody pierced and vibrated in my chest, where it lingered long after the song had ended. Other tunes sounded overburdened, harsh and cacophonic, and I longed to shut them off and return to silence — as I still do. The new contrast I’d found, between the thrill of sound and the relief of silence, showed me something that I had perhaps known for my entire life, but had never been able to articulate. Music was not just about sound. It never had been. Music, to me, also was, and is, about the body, about what happens when what we call sound escapes its vacuum and creates ripples in the world.
The summer after I got my cochlear implant, I started to explore more of what music might mean to me. I picked out some notes on the piano again. I went to my first symphony concert. That overwhelming time, and all the new things I was hearing, gave me new license to go make music of my own. At the symphony, the cochlear implant whisked me into a flush of sound, but I was still enthralled by the visual — watching the physical artistry of the musicians with their instruments. Not long after, I discovered the art of music videos performed in American Sign Language. The work of talented deaf artists like Jason Listman and Rosa Lee Timm made some songs, which I’d previously listened to with mild interest, suddenly roar to life. I watched those songs in A.S.L., and that was when I truly felt them, in a way an auditory or written rendering could never provide.
Soon after, I tried dancing. It wasn’t that I hadn’t danced before — just that I’d felt embarrassed. There had been a time, once, when I’d found myself on the dance floor surrounded by hearing friends who belted out song lyrics I couldn’t understand. I’d fielded the usual questions from them about how much of it I could really hear, which made me ask myself why I was there. Wasn’t deaf dancing an oxymoron, after all? Now, as the deaf model Nyle DiMarco has clearly shown on “Dancing With the Stars,” the answer is no — but I freely confess that, in the days before his performances, I had to discover this for myself. Again, my cochlear implant gave me license to try. When a friend persuaded me to go dancing for the first time in years, I discovered that, even though I undeniably enjoyed listening to the music, my favourite songs were the ones that thrummed with a deep rhythm, that sent the bass vibrating through my body. I danced not only by what I heard, but also by what I felt. The physical motion of dancing, once I released myself to it, swirled through my core. Then, when my friend and I started signing along to the lyrics, the realisation hit me: this celebration of feeling, motion, sensation and language was what mattered when I experienced music.
Not only does music ingrain itself in our bodies in ways beyond simply the auditory, it also becomes more remarkable once it does. “Can you hear the music?” Even though I now can, I think this question misses the point. Music is also wonderfully and inescapably visual, physical, tactile — and, in these ways, it weaves its rhythms through our lives. I now think a far richer question might be: “What does music feel like to you?”