Musical Vibrations

by Professor Carl Hopkins

originally published in the Institute of Acoustics blog at

Eleven million people in the UK have some form of hearing loss (approximately one in six people), and there are more than 900,000 people with a severe or profound hearing loss. Whilst communication tends to receive the most attention in research, access to music, and participation in music-making can be important too. To quote Dame Evelyn Glennie, β€œPeople think that music means nothing to the deaf; but it is important to them whether they are interested in it or not. The satisfaction of feeling vibrations, and being able to communicate through music, gives deaf children the greatest pleasure.”.

To support d/Deaf people in music performance, education, appreciation and production, the Musical Vibrations project is being run by Prof. Carl Hopkins, Natalie Barker (music teacher) and Dr Gary Seiffert from the Acoustics Research Unit at the University of Liverpool. This project aims to demonstrate the potential of using vibrotactile feedback (i.e. sound presented as vibration that is felt via the skin).

To demonstrate its potential in music appreciation, we invited WJ, who became profoundly-deaf about 8 years ago, to come and ‘feel’ one of her favourite songs from the past. Her wonderful reactions can be seen in this video:

The initial research considered the feasibility of group rehearsal, performance and improvisation for musicians with hearing impairments. The basic concept being that any musical performance can effectively be turned into a computer-controlled amplified performance where the sound from each instrument is taken to a mixing desk and sent back as a vibration signal to be presented to the body of the musician. This established that the concept was feasible for the perception of notes from C1 up to G5 with safe levels of vibration presented to the glabrous skin of the hands and/or feet.

The equipment is currently installed in Derby Royal School for the Deaf where it is being used to deliver music lessons. The teacher has commented that β€œIt is changing the way I teach” and on entering the room the children now immediately take their shoes and socks off before the lesson has even started.


Carl is a Professor in Acoustics and Head of the Acoustics Research Unit at the University of Liverpool. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Acoustics and a Chartered Engineer. Carl was awarded the Tyndall Medal in 2012 for his achievements and services in the field of acoustics, and awarded the Engineering Medal in 2016 in recognition of his outstanding contribution in the field of acoustical engineering. 

His research primarily focuses on the measurement and prediction of sound and structure-borne sound in the built environment with applications to building, automotive, aeronautic, or marine structures. He has published a sole-author monograph on sound transmission in buildings that is referenced in British, European and International Standards. Recent research on using vibrotactile stimuli to facilitate interactive performance between musicians with hearing impairments was shortlisted for the 2013 THE award ‘Research project of the year’.