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Music for the Deaf

John Moe

Marc Sanchez

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Sean Forbes Interpreting a Song
(Kim Simms)
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D-PAN Presents Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful"

For many of us, going to see live music on the weekend is something we take for granted. We obsess over a band, listen to their music and go to their shows.

There's a smaller segment of the population that has been mostly ignored by musicians, but they're just as passionate about the music: the deaf and hard of hearing.

Sean Forbes is a music fan, even though he hears about 10 percent of what most people hear. He's been partially deaf since he was an infant.

You can often find Sean performing sign language versions of songs at concerts. With his signs, he tries to add an element of emotion to match the songs. But he's not just satisfied with live shows: Sean helped create D-Pan, the Deaf Performing Artists Network, which releases sign language videos of songs.

Thomas Zurbuchen is also interested in helping bridge the gap. He's the director for the University of Michigan's Center for Entrepreneurship. The center is sponsoring a competition to come up with technology that will help the deaf/hard of hearing community experience music.


John Moe: Sean, how do you experience music?

Sean Forbes: My friends and I usually turn the bass up. Every time we watch movies or listen to music, everybody's always like, "Turn it up, turn it up!" I always turn the bass up, and it shakes my whole house.

Moe: What kind of music are you into?

Forbes: I love all kinds of music. I'm a big fan of hip-hop. When I listen to it, I can really feel the bass and drums. I know this might sound funny, but hip-hop is really easy for me to follow, because the rapper usually has a percussive thing going on with his lyrics. I love rock. I love blues. I like jazz. I like a little bit of country music. I like a little bit of everything.

Moe: Tell me about how you have been helping other deaf people experience music.

Forbes: It was always something that I did and something I always shared with all my friends, by interpreting lyrics into sign language. I was on a trip from Rochester, N.Y., to Gallaudet University in Washington, DC to visit some friends down there, and we were all in the car and I was signing all these songs. While I was doing this, a light bulb went off in my head, and I was thinking it would be cool if there were ASL music videos with deaf people interpreting these artists' lyrics into American Sign Language. And, it could be enjoyed by not just the deaf and hard of hearing, but the hearing community, as a new way to enjoy music and watch music in a different setting.

Moe: Thomas Zurbuchen, you're not deaf. What's your interest in this area?

Thomas Zurbuchen: This is one of those challenges where technology can make a difference in people's lives. You cannot meet people like Sean, and especially Sean, and not be moved. I have friends who are hard of hearing or deaf, profoundly deaf in some parts, and being able to touch their lives potentially, by doing something like this, that's a no brainer.

Moe: How does it match up with your field of expertise at the university?

Zurbuchen: You know, I build satellite instruments that go visit other planets, so if you ask why does that help? It needs to work. It needs to be small. It needs to be not power hungry, like many of the machines we have on earth. That's precisely the kind of technology we're looking for.

Moe: Thomas, I've heard there was an item on the market called the "Butt Kicker." What is that?

Zurbuchen: It's a device that you attach to table, or a chair, or a stage. It shakes the device. If you have it on your chair and the bass is turned up, all the sudden you feel this chair starting to shake to the beat.

Forbes: I first experienced this last Thursday. It was really cool. We had it hooked up to the P.A. system, and some of the musicians played the instruments. It really felt like my head was inside the drum.

Moe: Thomas, what do you think you'll be seeing in this competition that you're sponsoring?

Zurbuchen: I think we'll see devices like the "Butt Kicker," but smaller. Devices that people can bring to a concert by themselves. I think the kind of vibrational sensation that Sean talked about just a minute ago can be done in shoes. I know a few shoe people I'd like to talk to and figure out how to include that into a shoe design today. I think the second thing I would look at is a music belt. Like a belt with a Blackberry hanging from it, but it's not a Blackberry. It's a device that transmits and translates sounds into vibrations or other sensations.

Moe: Sean, what are you hoping comes out of this competition?

Forbes: You know, I go to a concert and I can feel it, but ever since I stood in front of the "Butt Kicker," I knew this was going to be a totally different trip. I'm really excited about the technology challenge and what's going to come out of it. I really hope that it brings deaf people to want to go to concerts more and want to be involved, and I know they do.

Moe: What do people in that community stand to gain from having more access to music in this way?

Forbes: It's interesting, because the older generation of deaf people--I'm not saying all of them, but a lot of them--are not into music as much as the younger people are. I think that that generational gap is because there wasn't MTV and YouTube back then. Now there's MTV and there's YouTube, and everybody wants to feel like they belong. I think that by deaf people going to concerts it would make everybody feel like they're a part of this. You have blind musicians out there, but where are the deaf musicians? There are deaf musicians out there. There are deaf people that love music and they want to be as much a part of it as anybody else.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By marta tegegne

    From los angeles, CA, 06/26/2014

    can u email me pls? my is email tegegnemarta@yahoo.com

    By marta tegegne

    From los angeles, CA, 06/26/2014

    can u email me pls? my is email tegegnemarta@yahoo.com

    By marta tegegne

    From los angeles, CA, 06/26/2014

    can u email me pls? my is email tegegnemarta@yahoo.com

    By marta tegegne

    From los angeles, CA, 06/26/2014

    i am marta and deaf and my love song and i like song show with people world at tv and can u sing for me futuer song with tv peasple? let me know pls? thanks

    By marta tegegne

    From los angeles, CA, 10/15/2013

    I am marta , deaf and my love song about god , can u call me phone or vp 562 286 6286 let me know pls? thanks

    By Raven Maxwell-Hodges

    From Indianapolis, IN, 03/21/2011

    Hey Great to music. i see u alots. But my favi ur music.Pretty. But how u got hearing i think you are deaf i was confused now but i want know. what happened u got deaf i was confused. Im deaf. My name Raven maxwell-hodges. i was 16age

    By nancy pruitt

    From ponca city, OK, 10/06/2010

    sir i am real very very intresting in sean forbes that he were hard of hearing just alike me i am order anyway i love his music rapp also what about jazz can he do this let me know if i am intresting on him call me email

    By Jasmine Mack

    From chicago, IL, 12/27/2009

    i want music for hip -hop i am 19 old year

    By Carol Finkle

    From Philadelphia, PA, 04/22/2009

    I am a huge fan of "Beethoven's Nightmare" (BN), the only known Deaf rock band, and the incomparable CJ Jones and Warren "Wawa" Snipe and Deaf entertainers all who are the forefathers of Deaf music and who paved the way for the current D-Pan generation. I would love to see Weekend America to do a story on BN and the amazingly talented Deaf artists (Wawa created Dip-Hop/that is Hip-Hop the Deaf way!) A story on these guys, and TL, would widen the potential for them (now in their thirtieth year of searching for opportunities to play and perform! There are even two brand new films; one just screened at Phila. Film festival is "See What I'm Saying": the Deaf Entertainers Documentary about the lives of four artists including Bob Hiltermann, CJ and the incredible rock'n'roller who goes by the name of TL... together they now represent three decades/two generations of Beethoven's Nightmare who will rock the house down! I myself am one of America's primary advocates for Deaf rights in all manner of ways (forty years and counting...smile). I would love to be interviewed; this week I will pursue the same effort with the goal of having WXPN (a Philadelphia based power house of music) show case BN and other amazingly talented Deaf sign-songers... Thanks for your ears.

    By Ashwin Ravi



    my name is Ashwin Ravi. i am from India. this article was great.practically an eye opener for me as i haven't had any friends who are deaf. me and a couple of my friends are working on this device that uses light sources to help a person who has permanent hearing loss to understand what is going around him when he/she is alone.

    i would be extremely happy to be of some help to your cause. it would also be of great help if i could get more information on the various methods that hearing impaired people use to communicate. is there any visual usage (ie) using various lights to glow for different sounds????



    By Regina Staudt

    From Saddle River, NJ, 09/26/2008

    This sounds great. My 11 year old nephew was just diagnosed 100% he lost his hearing very quickly. He loves music as most teenagers. What can I buy to help him?

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