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Music, Spoken Language, and Children with Hearing Loss: Using Music to Develop Spoken Language

Music, Spoken Language, and Children with Hearing Loss: Using Music to Develop Spoken Language
Christine Barton
May 25, 2010


"Daddy, I hear music in my dreams!"

Cooper, age 4, bilateral cochlear implant user


Music and childhood are like peanut butter and jelly. It is hard to imagine one without the other! While the latter combination may not exist in every corner of the world, music certainly does. Every known culture embraces a musical heritage. Every known culture embraces a language. They are quintessential human behaviors. In fact, they may be the key to what defines us as human (Patel, 2008). Remarkably, neither music nor language training is needed for children to gain the rules that govern the syntax of both domains (Marin, 2009). They are merely absorbed through the child's interactions with their culture on a daily basis. By the time children are ready for kindergarten, they will be able to speak and sing in their native language, and no one will have taught them. Instead, as one child put it, "I teached myself!" The one caveat is this: Children need exposure to both music and language of their own culture from an early age.

Spoken language surrounds the majority of children with hearing loss. However, it is not known how much music these children are exposed to. If the biggest predictor in successfully learning music is having it present in the child's environment from an early age (Gordon, 2003), then this is a concern. A study by Bergeson, Miller, and McCune (2006) revealed that mothers of infants who had a cochlear implant (CI) used the same kind of infant-directed (ID) singingmotheresethat they used with their hearing infants. This is good news because it is this higher-pitched, lilting, expressive style of speech that conveys emotional intent to the infant and sets the stage for future language and music learning.

This article will make a strong case for the inclusion of music into the lives of children with hearing loss. It will address particular challenges these children may face as they process music through their amplification devices, and will provide music activities and resources to support those who seek to enrich the musical lives of children with hearing loss.

Why Music?

Music pervades our culture. It sustains us from the "cradle to the grave." It helps us celebrate the good times, and binds us together when we falter. It gets our bodies moving and stimulates our emotions. It provides comfort when words fail. It enhances life. And, as someone misquoting Shakespeare once said, "It hath charms to soothe the savage beast!"

The debate over which came firstmusic or languagehas been quietly raging among the world of musicologists, anthropologists, and philosophers. Perhaps we will never know the truth. But what is certain is that the "instinct to sing" is just as powerful as the "instinct to speak," and the two are inextricably linked (Mithen, 2006, p. 5). It is this deep-seated connection that can be used as an advantage to support spoken language and music development in children with hearing loss.

Music to Impaired Ears

All children pass through certain milestones on their way to acquiring language, but the path, though similar, will be delayed for children with hearing impairment (see Barton, 2010a article for developmental milestones). Children learn language and music by first hearing it, then speaking/singing it, then reading it, and finally writing it. This "sound-before-sight-before-theory" is a universal learning sequence (Bluestine, 2000, p. 39). In other words, before we can run, we must first learn to crawl. So, the first question to ponder is how do children with less than perfect ears hear music?

The answer is, differently. To hear a simulation of what several instruments might sound like to an individual with varying degrees of hearing loss, the reader can visit a website provided by Phonak, a hearing aid manufacturer. Pay close attention to how the unique signature sounds of each instrument changes with the degree of hearing loss. www.phonak.com/us/b2c/en/hearing/understanding_hearingloss/how_hearing_loss_sounds.html

Researchers at the House Ear Institute have developed simulations of music and speech as it may sound to a CI user. Caution is advised when listening because they are simulations based on what the degraded signal sounds like through the device and not necessarily to the CI user.


Users of cochlear implants and users of hearing aids have advantages and challenges in experiencing music. The next section will address these advantages and challenges.

christine barton

Christine Barton

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