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’A New Approach in Understanding How People with Sensory Impairment Perceive and Interpret Music’

By Russ Palmer

Based on the paper presented at the third Nordic Conference of Music Therapy in Jyväskylä, Finland 12-15 June, 1997.


Feeling the Music Philosophy is a description for being able to 'visualise' and 'interpret' music with sensory impaired people, to feel music through vibrations instead of listening to music through our ears. The idea of using music with sensory impaired people is a relatively new area, which requires an understanding of how we ’visualise’ and ’interpret’ music by feeling the vibrations and rhythms from the music being played, or created using musical instruments. Perhaps this idea can be described as a new approach, like ’Feeling the Music Philosophy’ as defined by Palmer (1994). How are people with a sensory impairment able to experience music, play an instrument, and identify different music styles in a visual way? How are deafblind people able to share in this same experience?

Interpreting and identifying different 'styles' of music using 'body senses' is a physiological method of experiencing music through vibrations. Music Therapy treatment using vibroacoustic technology is becoming an important part of rehabilitation for people who have a sensory impairment, including those with Profound & Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD). People with a 'dual-sensory impairment' suffer from tensions in the eyes, head, neck, shoulders and legs and one application for research is to identify, how the physiological functions are affected through having to use additional senses in the bodies in order to hear and see. For example people who lip-read in conversation have to use a large amount of energy through their eyes and positioning of their bodies.

Working with sensory impaired people who have Profound & Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) requires patience, sensitivity and the ability to communicate through basic Sign Language. A combination of skills using TCRM techniques (Touch-massage, Communication, and Relaxation using Music and Movements) as defined by Palmer (1994), provides this client group an opportunity to experience music using qualitative methods. Helsinki Deaf School in Finland and the Royal School for the Deaf in Manchester, UK, have been the basis of my research and both schools have adopted some new approaches which fulfils the school’s National Curriculum. Perhaps existing teaching methods of using music with sensory impaired groups needs to be re-assessed and evaluated, by adopting a more ’flexible and holistic’ approach, which enhances the student’s ’Quality of Life’.


As an English hearing and visually impaired person, I feel there needs to be more understanding as to how we 'feel' and 'perceive' music. More research is required to analyse and identify the physiological and neurological benefits of how music can be applied in a relaxation and rehabilitation treatment therapy programme. This paper is based on my own independent research work over a period of seven years, travelling around Norway, UK and Finland and hope in the near future to expand this work in the fields of Music Therapy, VibroAcoustics and MusicMedicine.


I was born in England as a severely deaf person, who has Usher Syndrome (Deafness, tunnel vision and night blindness), who developed an interest in Music from the age of ten, specialising in the Piano and Guitar. I originally trained and qualified as a professional Computer Analyst/Programmer for eleven years, before taking early retirement at the age of 30 in 1989. Turning to my second career where I studied at Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland, 1995-99 and qualified as an International Music Therapist Consultant. I like to share my experiencees as to how we feel music using our physiological senses in our bodies, to develop techniques when working with sensory impaired groups of people and to identify the methods of applying different styles of music. This also includies those people with Profound & Multiple Learning Difficulties (PMLD).

During my time at Dartington College of Arts, in Devon, UK, 1990-92, I developed my musical and compositional skills, researching into the application of using music with Deaf and Deafblind children. Workshops included identifying which types of musical instruments could be applied with Deafblind children (Palmer, 1991a) and using non-western music such as the 'GAMELAN' (Palmer, 1991b) with some deaf children. A further workshop was set up at a deaf club using 'AFRICAN' instruments.

In 1992 I spent a year at the AKS HJEMMET FOR DØVE resource centre in Andebu, Norway, conducting a 'Music Research Project' with 14 children and 4 adults. Here I developed the application of using different styles of music using a specially designed VibroAcoustic Music-Floor. In addition there was an opportunity to use a combination of techniques, called TOUCH, COMMUNICATION and RELAXATION using MUSIC and MOVEMENTS (TCRM), for teachers in Special Education and devising a Music Programme with Deafblind and Deaf with Multiple Disabilities at the centre (Palmer, 1994).

Returning to the UK in August 1993, I spent one year in Birmingham giving workshops at SENSE (National Deafblind & Ruebella Association) residential centres. In addition to this I was responsible for setting up a project with Sheffield Hallam University and Whittington Hall Hospital ("SNOEZELEN" Multi-Sensory Centre) in Chesterfield to design a portable music-floor known as the "Tac-tile Sound System (TTSS)". This included training staff, on how to use these music facilities, to evaluatie the TTSS which is still on-going. The aim is to expand the evaluation project to other different centres around Scandinavia and Europe.

Moving to Finland in 1994 I continued to give lectures and workshops at Universities and various Deaf, Deafblind Associations and Deaf schools (Helsinki & Oulu). One specicific project with Helsinki Deaf school is examining how music can be applied to the school's curriculum (Palmer, 1995). My work has now expanded to giving courses in Scandinavia and Europe. In 1996, I started my studies at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland to become qualified as an International Music Therapist in 1999.


My perception of feeling Music is based on interpreting and feeling the vibrations from the Music both 'physiologically' and through 'artificial sound' through using my hearing aids. As a person who was born 'severely deaf', I have no perception of 'real sound' and have learnt to train myself to interpret musical sounds through developing my 'useful hearing', known as 'residual hearing'. This area of hearing combined with using hearing aids assist me by discriminating the 'pitches', 'tones' and 'sensitivity', which can be applied in identifying and interpreting the different styles of music.

However, it is true to assume that all people with a sensory impairment, without the use of hearing aids, can feel sound vibrations and 'tones' through their bodies. This means that the physiological, neurological functions in the body become activated in a stronger sense, compared to those people who have no hearing impairment ie. a switching of senses. I know that when I switch off my hearing aids there appear to be a 'switching over' of senses through to my 'tactile' senses.

Those people who have some 'residual' hearing i.e. hard of hearing, or severely deaf, can be trained to develop their speech or interpret the different tones and sounds through the use of hearing aids. Physiologically this means the brain is stimulated and trained to interpret different tones of sounds or speech patterns using the 'residual hearing', through the hearing aids. Similarly this also applies to Cochlear Implant patients and here I believe Music has a positive role to fulfil.

If one examines Claus Bang's work we can clearly see this is the case. In his article "A World of Sound & Music Therapy & Musical Speech Therapy with Hearing Impaired & Multiple Handicapped Children" (1980), he identified that by stimulating the area of the brain for speech and language, it is possible to develop their speech to use their 'residual hearing' from an early age. Furthermore, using functional therapy techniques using specific musical instruments such as the large wooden 'Tone Bars' can enhance this interaction.

Another example of work done by Carol & Clive Robbins (1980), examines how hearing impaired children are able to utilise their 'residual hearing', using hearing aids, with more emphasis on group participation and using 'Reed Horns' with Music & diagramatic notation to play music together. Furthermore, they have identified the different hearing loss levels in comparison to what they hear or feel from the vibrations of the Music. The aspects of hearing sounds can be summarised as follows (Robbins & Robbins, 1980, 1-23) :

- SENSITIVITY (awareness)
- RECOGNITION (Consonance sounds)
- COMPREHENSION (Interpretation)

My own research work has focused on identifying the different styles of music which can be applied to Music sessions with sensory impaired people. One theory could be outlined below :

"In Music, vibrations producing Low Tones can be felt by body senses in the feet, legs & hips. The Middle Tones can be felt in the stomach, chest & arms, similarly the High Tones can be felt in the fingers, head and hair".

(Palmer, 1994, 2)

Over the last eight years I have realised the combination of using Music and other therapeutic techniques such as TCRM (Touch-massage, Communication, Relaxation using Music and Movements), (Palmer, 1994) can assist deafblind and those with multiple disablities, to build up their 'Confidence', 'Mobility' thus assisting to improve their own 'Quality of Life'.


For example, as an experiment put on a piece of music of your choice, hold a balloon between your hands and try to imagine that you are deafblind, using earplugs and close your eyes. Feel the air around you and feel the vibrations from the music being picked up by the balloon.

Move the balloon to the side of your face and try to identify and sense what type of tones you are feeling through your body ie. low, middle or high tones. Move around the room and feel where the intensity of the vibration is strongest ie. moving closer or further away from the Music hi-fi speakers should illustrate this.

Obviously this will depend on the type of music you have chosen and you may need to experiment with different styles of music to feel the different tonal effects of the music. In addition one also needs to be aware that each person may respond differently ie. physiologically or emotionally. However, by thinking and understanding how music moves this will assist you in understanding the "Feeling the Music Philosophy" concept.

As a hearing and visually impaired musician, by taking off my hearing aids I am able to describe how and where I feel music from the rhythm and vibrations. From a hearing/sighted person point of view this may be difficult to recreate.


This area is more difficult to define as each individual person responds differently to music but some of the following points should be considered :

- Determine the hearing loss levels of your student ie. mild, severe or profound loss.
- Do they wear hearing aids if so should these be adjusted so the sound they are listening to, is not uncomfortable.
- Other disabilities ie. physical such as cerebral palsy (CP).
- What purpose do you wish to use the music for ie.relaxation & touch-massage, movements or body stimulation.
- What styles of music ie. New Age, Popular, Techno, Rap, Country & Western or Classical.

Some people choose classical music as a first option and this is sometimes a mistake as this style of music for hearing impaired people can be too complex to follow. Try to choose something that has a good constant rhythm that is easy to follow and think of the different tones mentioned earlier.


Taking the above a step further it is possible to use drawing with music. This has been a popular activity with Deaf children as it illustrates the 'visual' aspects of how Music moves using Guided Imagery techniques. Consider the following motions :

- slow or fast
- flowing or dramatic
- reflective

Take these motions by drawing shapes, symbols or pictures on a piece of paper, assist the student where possible by supporting their arm and move to the flow of the music, let them draw what they feel.


Another method could consist of using Kinaestics and dance movements. For example by working in pairs one person being deafblind, close their eyes the other person being the leader. Put on a piece of music, the leader stands behind the other person placing their hands on the partners shoulders and back. The leader can then move their fingers and hands to the flow of the music similarly to drawing on a piece of paper. This same idea can be expanded to include movements by standing opposite your partner and 'Mirror copying' using 'hand' contact ie. palm to palm, to the flow of the music. Later this can be expanded to include just 'finger' contact and dance. Using these methods gives information to a deafblind person how the music is moving.


There are various methods of using Music hi-fi equipment which may assist professionals if they wish to use music in this way. If you have access to a gymn or wooden floor, you can place two speakers face down on the floor. Your student can lie down on the floor with one speaker behind their head and the other parallel to their middle of their backs and hips. This allows the vibrations to be spread across the whole body. If there is an armchair you can place one speaker at the back of a chair and the other at the side and this will allow the sound and vibrations to go through the chair. You can also use a "bean bag" or an "airbed" in the similar way.


Refer to ’Music Floors and ’Tac-Tile Sounds System (TTSS)’ on this website.


VibroAcoustic therapy is a complex and very wide area which encompasses the fields of 'Music Therapy', 'Physiology', 'Psychotherapy', 'Psychology', 'MusicMedicine (Neurology)' and 'VibroAcoustics'. Research work with sensory impairment people is still a specialised field of work, which needs to be expanded and understood. "Feeling the Music Philosophy" is a new concept which will take time to be absorbed by professionals in this field of work. Some of the ideas include the following areas :

- Styles of Music
- Feeling & Expressing rhythms
- Visualising the flow of the Music
- Drawing and Music
- Movements with Music
- VibroAcoustic Technology
- Balancing Equipment

Perhaps there need to be a more flexible understanding in this 'new' philosophy of being able to apply the techniques to 'feel the vibrations from music' instead of by 'listening to music'. There appears to be a large number of deaf and deafblind who appreciate and enjoy music whether it be through "Feeling the vibrations", "Memory of Music" or using "Residual Hearing", with or without the use of hearing aids.

Music activity leisure programmes as defined by Palmer (1996) will assist in improving those students with multiple and profound learning disabilities (PMLD), to improve their own "Quality of Life". They appear to feel and respond to the music by vibrations as defined by Palmer (1994) which encourages interaction between staff, professionals and students.

Perhaps now is the time for rehabilitation programmes to consider the implications and benefits of using music in this way so that it gives therapeutic benefits for people with a sensory impairment. Similarly the suggestions that have been explored to improve access to music, use of innovative methods of 'feeling' music can be utilised to enhance the experience of people with profound and multiple learning disability.


Bang, C. (1980) : ’A World of Sound & Music Therapy & Musical Speech Therapy with Hearing Impaired & Multiple Handicapped Children’. British Association for the Teachers of the Deaf. Vol 4, 4.

Palmer, R.C. (1991a) 'Deafblind Children's Workshop'. Dartington College of Arts, Devon, UK, March 1991. (unpublished)

Palmer, R.C. (1991b) 'Deaf GAMELAN Workshop - A New Approach to Music'. Dartington College of Arts, Devon, UK, April 1991. (unpublished)

Palmer, R.C. (1994) 'MUSIC RESEARCH PROJECT (Aug 1992 - June 1993)'. Report for Hjemmet For Døve, Andebu, Norway. (unpublished)

Palmer, R.C. (1995) 'Introducing Music to the Curriculum'. Report for Helsinki Deaf School, Development Plan for 1996. (unpublished)

Palmer, R.C. (1996) 'Considerations when Planning a Music Programme for Sensory Impaired People' - Final Report. Introductory course in Music Therapy, Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, Finland.

Robbins, C. & Robbins, C. (1980) 'Music for the Hearing Impaired & Other Special Groups (A Resource Manual and Curriculum Guide)'. Magnamusic-Baton, USA.

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