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Why Music Exposure is Essential for Children with Hearing Loss

4 min read
Clarke children playing music in a classroom
Clarke student Abigael (pink) participates in a drumming exercise co-led by Clarke team members Brian Boni, a musician who holds degrees in audio engineering and music theory, and Sherri Fickenscher, MS, LSLS Cert. AVEd, education support specialist.

Whether it’s Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 or Hot Cross Buns (on repeat!), music provides significant benefits to children. Research indicates that exposing children to music is key to healthy brain development and can even accelerate that development.  

In a five-year longitudinal study at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, neuroscientists found that music education sped up development in the parts of the brain responsible for processing sound, developing language, perceiving speech and reading. They also discovered that music instruction increased both the maturation and efficiency of the brain’s auditory pathway. 

Making Music Part of Life for Children who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Musical exposure is especially critical for children who are deaf or hard of hearing because it stimulates speech, language and cognitive abilities. And because so much learning happens at home, families can support listening and speech development through simple play and activities—like listening to music, dancing along and singing. 

Birth To Age Three

Singing, in particular, offers many benefits to children from infancy to age three. Singing to babies comes naturally for many parents and caregivers—often until a hearing loss diagnosis is confirmed. Suddenly families find themselves quiet at a time when their child needs more exposure to language. 

Singing exposes children to natural vocal rhythms and provides certain qualities of parentese/motherese—a type of speech that includes a higher pitch voice, an emphasis on vowels, a sing-song tone and lots of natural inflection. Additionally, early intervention professionals recommend taking on the role of narrator with a child who is deaf or hard of hearing. They’ll often use the analogy of a sports commentator who announces play-by-play of what is happening on the field. When this feels unnatural—or just exhausting—singing is a great substitute. Caregivers can make up a song about anything they’re doing, from changing a diaper to making a pot of coffee while their baby is playing nearby. (Find more Listening and Spoken Language strategies to use at home here.) 

Preschool and Older

For preschoolers and school-age students, more complex musical activities—in addition to lots of singing!—are highly recommended. Singing, listening to music and making music are critical to helping children master the alphabet, learn routines, develop auditory attention and memory skills and instill an appreciation of music. And because children who are deaf or hard of hearing miss out on incidental learning opportunities (knowledge gained or overheard from informal, non-educational situations and interactions), they require explicit direction to comprehend musical concepts—for example, the words in songs, how instruments make sound or how music and culture are linked.  

Tweens and Teens

Opportunities to make music and to participate in music-related activities increase as children reach middle and high school. Joining the school band, singing in a church choir, taking dance lessons or playing a role in a school musical are activities that build on early music exposure (and increase confidence!).  

Clarke alum Jess, a musician who wears hearing aids, notes that different aspects of music-making bring her different benefits. “Singing brings me happiness and peace; it’s healing,” says Jess. “It’s almost like therapy for me. There’s always a song to sing when you feel a certain way. When you play an instrument, it feels more powerful. You’re controlling everything and you can show your physicality in the performance.” (Learn more about Jess in the winter 2023 issue of Mainstream News.) 

The Benefits of Music Education for Children Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing:
  • Helping children develop a more subtle and nuanced voice quality by practicing different pitches and sound levels to produce more natural and expressive speech    
  • Building confidence through group performance and song to help overcome shyness and the reluctance to speak    
  • Practicing activities children will participate in when they transition into mainstream settings with peers who have typical hearing     
  • Reinforcing students’ academic curriculum (e.g., number and alphabet learning, the seasons) in a fun and creative way    
  • Teaching children about different cultures and musical genres    
  • Providing gross motor activity as children dance and learn accompanying gestures and movements to songs (stamping feet, clapping, jumping)    
  • Learning sequencing (the order of notes, words and movements) 
  • Fostering musical interest to promote interest in learning an instrument or a lifelong love of music 

Music at Clarke

Clarke students listening to music in a classroom
Sherri Fickenscher, MS, LSLS Cert. AVEd, Clarke education support specialist, and Brian Boni, Development and Communications Specialist at Clarke, co-facilitate a music and drumming lesson for Clarke preschoolers who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Having a chance to enjoy music in the early years like this can aid a child’s communication skills and ability to engage with other people. These skills are foundational to learning how to self-advocate as students who are deaf or hard of hearing transition into mainstream settings.  

And, importantly: “We find that music and movement help children joyfully express themselves,” adds Meagan Benoit, Clarke teacher of the deaf.  

In addition to the myriad evidence-based reasons for incorporating music into curricula, its ability to delight those listening and interacting with music is unmatched. Families of children who are deaf or hard of hearing should feel confident that playing their favorite albums, teaching meaningful cultural songs or encouraging toddlers to bang on a pot with a wooden spoon are not only enriching and supportive of brain-building skills—but will also bring their child joy. 

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