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January 8, 2011

Sight Unheard – would I still enjoy the Beatles?

I am deaf.

Not literally, of course, but for all intents and purposes, I am deaf for the majority of my day.

See, I love to listen to music. I listen to music in the morning when I get up, on my way to class, between classes, on my way home, while doing homework, while eating, while reading, while sleeping. The only time I consistently don’t listen to music is when I’m in class and when I’m in the shower.

Which, outside those times, makes me deaf.

I can’t hear traffic, I can’t hear people talking around me, I can’t hear my own phone ring. The whole world around me is an uncanny mute cinema, set to the capricious whims of my iPod’s shuffle function.

I first noticed the complete strangeness of my situation the other day, when I was trying to catch a nap in the student lounge between classes. Considering I’ve been a heavy iPod used for about four years now, it would seem that I am not very self-aware. Anyway, I had earlier been talking to a friend about the different merits of various lounges scattered around campus: the general students’ lounge has the advantage of large comfortable couches, though getting one often proves to be a tireless task — I’m convinced that people must get up extra early to stake out their claims for that day while they go about their daily routines around campus. The Arts students’ lounge is smaller and you tend to know people in there, but it is located in the basement of a building and it has no natural light — and, because people know each other, it’s pretty loud (though I don’t mind that, I’m deaf). The new student area near the Arts lounge is nice and modern looking, but it is lacking in nap-ready furniture; it’s like all they want us to do in there is to study.

Anyway, after having weighed the pros and cons of each place, I decided to try my luck at finagling a comfortable couch in the general students’ lounge for a quick nap — after all, it was before noon, and that’s far too early to be up with any consistency. I arrived just as some people were getting up from a large couch, so I hung around suspiciously in the background, and as soon as their backpacks were on their shoulders, I threw mine on the couch while my body followed.

Just as I was settling into position for a wonderful nap, I looked around at the people around me. Everyone happened to be paired off, or in a group, and they were all talking animatedly. It looked liked a foreign movie where the translator fell asleep; it was weird to see how people were interacting with each other with nothing to guide them but their body language and lip movements. I was a stranger in a strange land, the eternal outsider looking in. To further add to the confusion, my music refused to synchronize with their lip movements, effectively divorcing the soundtrack with my image track. It is quite the estranging scene.

At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I closed my eyes and soon my image track ceased to exist while my music bounced along to flashed of light behind my eyelids. But I couldn’t really fall asleep, despite my coveted position. I kept thinking about the wordless people, so mute, trying in vain to speak but just flapping their lips. It is quite the strange production to be able to move through most of one’s day without really hearing the world around you. In fact, behind smelling, hearing is probably the most unconscious sense; as long as you aren’t deaf, you can’t choose not to hear one thing but hear another. And while wearing my earphones let me choose to hear my music over the natural world around me, there was still a break in normative experience. I heard my music above all else because it was closer to my ear — the sound waves from the talking people still emanated from their mouths. The tree still fell in the forest, and even though I didn’t hear it, I saw it.

Curious, then, that it was only really when I closed my eyes that I noticed the abnormality of my chosen routine. Once the soundtrack was able to completely take over my consciousness — soon to be unconsciousness — I became acutely aware of how bizarre it is to hear something completely different from what you are seeing. It’s like, instead of playing Dark Side of the Moon when watching The Wizard of Oz, play Iggy Pop & The Stooges’ Raw Power. It’s going to make no sense at all and you’re probably going to wish that Judy Garland’s pretty face was going to hell. Once I completely severed the sound from the image, from any image, I realized how much I missed the image. As much as I love music, I also love to see things. And although I truly believe that I would rather lose my sight than my hearing, how much of music is based on seeing? Would I enjoy music the same? More? Less? Certainly the instrumental parts may be more immersive, but since most of what I listen to has lyrics accompanying the music, would I still enjoy the Beatles if I can’t picture a glass onion?

This interesting view is brought to you by: Sebastian Buzzalino

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