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Music: an Adaptive Instrument of Expression

June 21st is World Music Day

by Kelly Collins

I had my first child nearly 30 years ago. As a first-time mother, I researched everything pregnancy-related and was influenced by research that suggested my child would grow to be more emotionally healthy if I could find a way to bring music as close to the womb as possible. Coming from a musical family myself, this didn't surprise me.

So, I bought a giant pair of headphones and propped them up on my belly each night. I wanted this child to hear jazz, classical, country, pop, and alternative music. I sang every night as I tried to calm the commotion within me and sleep—sometimes making up nonsense songs just so they would get to know my voice. I played recordings of my father's music in the hope of creating a special family connection.  

Baby number one was a sweet boy, and as we navigated those early weeks and months, I saw the influence this musical experience had on him. He danced with coordinated rhythm, and when he became fussy, music helped him calm. 

A couple of years later, baby number two was on the way, and I followed the same recipe for a safe pregnancy. When my daughter, Sara, was born, I couldn't get over how mellow she was. Even with a noisy older brother in the house, she could sleep through anything. Sara had enormous blue eyes and everyone would comment on the way she would observe her surroundings with scrutiny.

"For some, the music of words can happen in gestures and facial expressions."

Top Image: Sara with her older brother, Ryan, on a tire swing outdoors. Bottom Image: Sara playing a guitar on an empty stage at one of her Grandfather's jazz concerts. Credit: Kelly Collins

We had music playing in our house all the time. We had an "old school" equalizer protected behind tempered glass. Sara would often stand in front of it, with her hands planted firmly on the doors. She bobbed up and down as she watched the bars light up with the different frequencies in the music. Sometimes she would sit down on the old wood floors and wobble back and forth to the beat of the music, or stand in chubby, bare feet and step in time with the rhythm.  

However, I began to notice things about Sara that seemed "off" to me. In a crowded mall, my normally obedient child would run ahead of me in excitement, and wouldn't respond when I called after her to come back. She ignored me at home when I would instruct her to move or respond to me in a specific way. When I took her in for her two-year checkup, her pediatrician seemed concerned about her hearing. Concern from doctors turned into a typical occurrence for our family when she was diagnosed with a profound bilateral hearing loss. My daughter was deaf, and that was a reality that took me some time to fully comprehend. 

And then I wondered, how had she responded to music as though she could hear it all this time?

I've learned that for Deaf people, listening to music can take on a new meaning. It seems like sound happens in a different time and space. It can happen in shadows and light, in balanced waves of color, and black and white lines. It can happen in the space on the floor that vibrates when the bass kicks in. It can be seen when a grain of sand falls off the tight skin of a drum when popped on top with a stick.

For some, the music of words can happen in gestures and facial expressions. It can happen with the motion of hands flying through the air as others express emotion and thought.

Children are some of the most perceptive beings on earth. They often feel your emotions before you do, and use those feelings to gauge the matters of the world and draw conclusions. If a child cannot hear, they often may not pick up on the nuances of conversations. Sarcasm, for example, is heard in intonation or tempo through the spoken word, and I've learned that my child may need help gauging these nuances in conversations.

The true beauty of music is the fact that it is a universal language, and just because Sara couldn't fully hear it made little difference in her affinity for it. She could feel it and see it. She played the cello, the flute, and the guitar in school. She performed with student ensembles through her college years. She had the will and found a way.

"The true beauty of music is the fact that it is a universal language."

In later years, as an educator, I also saw the positive impact that music had on disabled children. It's a powerful tool that can help build large and fine motor skills. Making music is a tactile experience and touching instruments allows children to feel vibrations. Music is the way we learn that sound does something. 

I have seen children with developmental disabilities use music to assist them with putting their feelings into words. In therapeutic settings, evidence-based practices use music to achieve individual goals for children to cope with trauma or stress. Often, I have seen children with ADHD find success achieving a task wearing headphones playing classical music to eliminate distractions and stimulate parts of the brain that contribute to focus.

For decades, scientists have studied the positive impact of music on human life, and there is a raft of evidence supporting the idea that music heals the body, mind, and soul. Engineers have even designed clothing for people to wear to amplify how the human body feels music. While all of this science is remarkable, the bottom line is that music brings feelings to the heart. It's a tangible part of life for all and that is worth celebrating. 

I celebrate the fact that even though my daughter cannot hear the same way others do, she still feels joy and inspiration from music. I celebrate that children can find solace in instrumental music that expresses emotion when it's difficult to do so. I celebrate the idea that music can bridge conflict and contribute to peace in the world. And I celebrate the idea that even before birth, a human being can feel the positive influences of music.

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