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Using Music to Support and Inspire Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

5 min read
Clarke student Jess singing and playing guitar
Play Video about Clarke student Jess singing and playing guitar

Jess, who wears hearing aids and receives mainstream services from Clarke, covering “Riptide” by Vance Joy. (Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech does not own the rights to the song. Video is purely for entertainment purposes only.)

Why Music?

An enjoyable outlet for many, music also offers significant cognitive and social-emotional benefits for children. Research indicates that children who study or participate in music tend to have larger vocabularies, better reading skills, improved school attendance and higher standardized test scores. Studying music can also help students develop better fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination, as well as build social-emotional skills, including discipline. Studying music may also improve auditory function in the brain — an important benefit for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. In a five-year study conducted by the Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) at the University of Southern California, researchers found that music training both accelerated the maturation and improved the efficacy of the brain’s auditory pathway.

“Music builds strong brain connections,” says Katie Jennings MED, LSLS Cert., AVEd, mainstream coordinator and teacher of the deaf for Clarke’s Massachusetts Mainstream Program. “It’s also motivating. Children tend to respond positively to music. Studies have shown that music boosts positive mood and for a lot of children with hearing loss, music can be an outlet when they’re struggling with something. It also helps in so many other areas including language development and creativity.”

Katie uses music with her students in various ways to align with their developmental stage. With toddlers, she offers them different instruments, such as drums, to learn how to follow a beat or to develop the skill of detecting sound. For preschoolers, music can help them learn to listen and talk by connecting lyrics with familiar routines. Older students derive many social benefits from music. Families or teachers can also integrate music into academic activities, such as learning to read. “In preschool, children are singing all the time. It’s great for transitioning between activities, like stopping play and lining up for the hallway. And as children get older, reading the lyrics to a favorite song can motivate a struggling reader. Then as children enter middle and high school, appreciating music is part of making social connections,” Katie says.

And learning about music doesn’t have to involve pricey lessons and expensive equipment. Singing along with recorded music or figuring out how to plunk out notes on a basic keyboard or guitar still count as incorporating music in your child’s life.

Best Practices for Sharing Music with Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Music’s benefits are widely appreciated, but students with hearing loss may still get questions from teachers or others who think that they can’t fully enjoy or appreciate music. “It’s 100% a myth that children who are deaf or hard of hearing can’t enjoy music,” says Katie. “Music is essential in auditory-based therapy.” She explains that the brain’s musical and language centers are located on different sides of the brain. Music bridges the right and left brain between the areas that control music, language and creativity and can build stronger connections between them. “I’ve used music to teach reading, language and for so many other purposes,” she adds. “Children are motivated by music, so you can use it to teach so many skills.“

That said, a strategic approach to music can help children with hearing loss get maximum benefits from music. Especially with younger children, it’s best to start with very simple songs that are mostly lyric-focused and have at most one musical instrument. “It’s less about the music. You want them to hear the words and melody. It also helps with the pragmatics of language intonation and flow,” she says. “A piano song or a tap drum is a good place to start. Songs that have multiple instruments or are too loud mean they can’t hear the words, which defeats the purpose.“

She adds that live music—even if that’s just a teacher or caregiver singing aloud—is better than playing songs via CD or a streaming service. In-person music is preferable as, “children with hearing loss benefit from watching facial movements and body language,” Katie says.

Clarke Student Shares Musical Talents

Jess, 18, a high school senior receiving Mainstream Services from Clarke, has fluctuating, severe bilateral hearing loss and has used hearing aids since age three. She is also a talented guitarist, vocalist and songwriter—largely self-taught.

Remembering her early love of music, Jess has fond memories of singing along to the car radio with her sister. When her sister got involved with theater in school, Jess followed in her footsteps and realized that her enjoyment of music was turning into something much more meaningful.

She finds that the 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.”

Jess has had a few challenges in her pursuit of music, noting that if she’s not wearing her hearing aids, she can’t hear herself sing clearly; occasionally she has to work harder to find the right notes. In those cases, she’s developed techniques to overcome the challenges, including recording herself on her phone for playback and imitating the voices of other artists. 

But in general, her hearing loss hasn’t hindered her pursuit of her passion, and she benefits from a social circle that encourages her. “Sometimes the first time I play something someone will say, ‘How did you do that? I didn’t think you could do that. How do you know you sound right?’ But mostly people have been supportive,” Jess says.

“You can do whatever you want to do if the drive is there,” she adds. “There’s always a way to figure it out. There’s a way to find music.”

Visit Clarke’s Vimeo to watch Jess cover Vance Joy’s song, “Riptide.” (Please note: Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech does not own the rights to the song. Video is purely for entertainment purposes only.)

Jess, a high school senior and hearing aid user, receives Clarke Mainstream Services. She is also a talented musician who sings, plays guitar and writes her own music.

It’s also important to ensure the room where you are playing music is as acoustically sound as possible. “By reducing reverberation and background noise, children are able to better follow the rhythm and the beat. And if a student is listening to recorded music, they should be directly connecting their FM systems,” says Katie.  

Some well-intentioned teachers play soft music in the background during certain activities—as a form of white noise or to create atmosphere. But that can backfire for students with hearing loss.

“There’s a time and a place,” says Katie. “You have to make sure the music is used properly so it doesn’t impact access to sound when they’re interacting with the teacher or other students. Playing music only works when they’re doing truly independent work or in cases where they’re singing a song with the whole group.”

 Despite common misconceptions, children with hearing loss not only enjoy music, they can also benefit enormously from using music thoughtfully in both therapeutic and academic settings—or in casual use at home.

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