We Spoke to a Man Who's Been Deaf His Whole Life About Hearing Music for The First Time
How long could you cope without music for? In terms of addiction, it’s not exactly heroin, but as anyone who has embarked on a long distance journey with an MP3 player that is devoid of battery will tell you, going without music is hard. Imagine then, being unable to hear properly for your entire life. Austin Chapman has struggled with profound deafness since birth until a year ago, when he received a new set of hearing aids that changed his life. To him, it was like seeing the world through a pair of high definition 3D goggles, when he’d previously only witnessed monochromatic pixelated visuals. It changed his perception of everything.
With a lifetime worth of music to catch up on he posted on Reddit, asking people to tell him what music to listen to. Eager to find out what a previously deaf man’s perception of music is, and eager to hear his story, I sat down with Austin and asked him a few questions.
Noisey: What are the challenges that you had to face everyday from such profound deafness?
Austin: The biggest one is obviously communication. Most of my friends don't know sign language and I'm learning how to hear and follow conversations but it will be years before I get close to their level.
What made you want to get new hearing aids?
I didn't want new hearing aids because I didn't think there were any good ones after hearing through crap hearing aids for over 20 years. My parents told me to go in before I start paying my own health insurance to get a bigger discount under their plan. So I went in to demo two different brands and was properly blown away.
What were the hearing aids like before?
Garbled trash. They only allowed me to hear the low tones and also had zero clarity. Before I could see some shapes and colors, but now I'm seeing every detail and layer. It’s like I’m going from one or two colors to this fully 3D world.
Did some sounds surprise you when you first heard them?
Yeah, the first thing to surprise me was the sound of my friends voices.
What were they like?
My friend has a voice deeper than the earth itself, even after watching various TV shows and movies he still has the deepest. His voice belongs to a mountain man but he doesn't look like one. For the bad sounds, I really hate the toilet flush and always turn my aids off beforehand. Also, I've felt motorcycles pass by me before, but I didn't know how damn loud they are. Once at a party a girl had a laugh that was like a hyena that had just inhaled helium. I had to turn my hearing aid off for the whole party.
The first song that you heard after having your hearings aids put in was Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” right? How would you describe it?
I was carried away by the first half and thought about how beautiful the weaved notes sounded. But then I realized that I’d never been able to hear sounds like that before and I felt a numbing sensation wash over the top of my head and down my spine. It was exactly like the Bob Marley quote, "When it hits you, you feel no pain.” The experience was sort of like my first kiss, surreal, but exciting at the same time. The realization and beauty of the song made me break down and I tried to hide my tears but I saw that everyone else in the car was crying too.
How did you approach what music you were going to listen to before you asked Reddit for some help?
My friends suggested things to me. I figured I have limited time so why not use other people as a filter for good content.
Did you think you might get trolled on Reddit? They could have made you listen to really horrible music.
I expected it and did see some troll posts. What I didn't expect were people claiming I wasn't really deaf. Someone asked for my birth certificate to prove my deafness. Now I know how Obama feels.
Did you eventually trawl through all the suggestions?
Yeah, I finished all the top upvotes. Right now I’m still going through my personal message recommendations.
What are the best suggestions that you’ve had so far?
Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Bob Marley, blues, Queen, Beatles, Explosions In The Sky, Sigur Ros, and Radiohead.
And the worst?
“Call Me Maybe”, Bieber, and “What Does The Fox Say.”
What do you feel makes certain tracks good and certain tracks bad?
It’s personal taste but for the ones I like they're really harmonious and melodic. The bad ones are loud and over exposed. It's not entirely their fault but I stopped listening to radio a long time ago because of repeated songs. I love originality. Nothing sounds like “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
How would you describe the evolution of music? You're in a pretty unique position to comment on it.
I wouldn't call it evolution. It's easier to find good songs pre-digital age. They end up sounding more authentic. Modern music is so much louder. But there are a few modern bands pushing music to the next level. I just didn't expect to love classical more than any genre. So, from my point of view, music has been in a confused and downward spiral ever since classical ended. Some got close but no one has touched on Mozart’s requiem. I rank classical 99/100, the blues 91/100 and Reggae 85/100.
How much has music enhanced your life since you’ve been able to hear it?
The biggest one for me is the ability to hear soundtracks of other films and my own films as well, I never thought I would get to work directly with the composer.
Does it make you hopeful for the future?
Definitely and extremely grateful. Now I have the best of both worlds.
(Austin is now editing a short documentary about his time with a deaf community in Haiti and is raising money to make a movie based on his experiences, check out his Vimeo for more movies)
Dan is on Twitter - @KeenDang