The Musical Vibrations project, from the University of Liverpool Acoustics Research Unit, aims to bring music to d/Deaf people in schools, live music venues and music production studios, using the power of vibration.

The story so far

The potential for vibration to allow “hearing through the skin” was first considered in 1926. As acoustics researchers we’ve been involved since 2010, searching for a suitable technology solution to help d/Deaf people to perceive music through vibration and to help d/Deaf and hearing musicians work together as equals.

The technology that underpins Musical Vibrations is known as vibrotactile technology. We’ve worked with musicians, music psychologists, teachers and charities working with d/Deaf people to find what vibrotactile technology is capable of. Initial feedback from users who have experienced it has been very positive. But we need to go further and find out what the system can really do outside of the laboratory.

How can I get involved?

Our vision is to have a vibrotactile system available  in every every school for d/Deaf children, every resource base of the d/Deaf and every concert venue (in conjunction with captioning and performance signing, of course!).

Our easy to use vibrotactile system can be loaned by organisations working with d/Deaf people to try out. We’re looking for feedback on what works and what our next steps should be.

To try this technology in your setting, see our join in page.

How does it work?

The vibrotactile technology that we use converts musical sounds that can be heard, into musical vibrations which are felt through the skin as vibrotactile feedback. It’s an assistive technology which has been described as a form of “hearing through the skin”.

Vibrotactile technology works best via the ‘glabrous’ skin on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Different musical pitches from C1 to G5 can be perceived in this way. In the Musical Vibrations system, up to six different vibrotactile elements can be used at the same time: (left hand, right hand, left heel, right heel, left forefoot, right forefoot).

The project builds on previous research into the tactile perception of music by D/deaf musicians which was inspired by Dame Evelyn Glennie, the highly-renowned solo percussionist who is classified as profoundly deaf with residual hearing at high amplification.

Compatible musical instruments

The system can be used with any electronic or acoustic instrument, or with a whole band!

  • Vocal microphone
  • Electric or electroacoustic guitars and ukuleles
  • Bass guitars
  • Keyboards, electric pianos and synthesisers
  • Digital audio workstations (DAW’s) + audio interface, MP3, CD, DVD players
  • Mixer outputs (usually one group send per shaker) from the FOH sound mixer in a live music setting
  • Any acoustic instrument which can be mic’d up or used with a pickup e.g. drums, violin, cello will also work just fine:
Picture of a woman's leg and part of a cello. The woman's hell and forefoot are resting upon two vibrotactile shakers
Cellist using a pickup to convert the sound of a the cello into vibration which can be felt through the foot shakers

Multi-channel approach

People can use up to six different vibrotactile shakers on their hands and feet and a different musical signal can be sent to each shaker. This means that a rock band comprising, for example, bass guitar, piano, kick drum and snare drum, can be more clearly defined than would be possible through by touching a single object in the room

For a musician, it’s still possible to ‘listen’ to four different signals by using the heels and toes of both feet, whilst leaving the hands free.

Teenage boy playing a red electric guitar. He has one bare foot placed gently on a vibrotactile foot shaker
Example setup, playing along to a bass guitar track.

What are suitable applications for this technology?

Using vibrotactile feedback can support d/Deaf people in music performance, education, appreciation and production:

Performance and education

  • To provide access to sound in the music classroom, for example, for duration dynamics and pitch exploration. The system covers musical pitches between C1 and G5 (32.7 Hz-784 Hz)
  • PItch discrimination: pitches that are a minor 3rd (skip) or more apart may be distinguished from each other
  • To assist musicians playing in an ensemble whilst keeping hands free and avoiding the distraction of balloons etc
  • To reduce noise exposure from high sound pressure levels in the music classroom (which are sometimes be generated in an attempt to intensify vibrations). The Musical VIbrations system generates very little residual noise as the vibrations don’t get transferred into the air very efficiently.
  • To assist solo practice in time to a click track / electronic metronome
  • To assist musicians in playing in time with a previous multitrack recording
  • To assist a singer to rehearse/perform in a choir without needing overt visual cues.
After trying the Musical Vibrations system out in music lesson, these keen pupils at the Royal School for the Deaf, Derby asked to return to have another go at lunchtime

Music appreciation

  • To appreciate music at a live performance as an addition to captioning and performance signing
  • To appreciate recorded music

Many d/Deaf people are keen to explore the vibrations generated by sound systems; hence the popularity of events like DeafRave, and they will often touch a loudspeaker or wall in a music venue to get a sense of the music. This means that every sound in the building is being transferred to the body’s somatosensory system through the palm of one hand, as described here by Aharona Ament:

One can try touching the ground and placing a back against walls at shows trying to see if they can tell the difference in rhythm and the type of instrument being played by the feelings that hum along the body when the music infiltrates the molecules in in the walls and in ourselves as well. *

With the Musical VIbrations system, six different vibrotactile elements are available to be used by the palms, heels, forefeet. So, up to six different musical signals, for example from different instruments within a band, can be felt on separate areas of the body and processed separately by the brain. These are derived from the main venue ‘FOH’ sound system but are selected to provide the most helpful vibrations. So, separate elements within the band, for example, bass guitar and snare drum, can be more clearly defined for the user than would be possible through touching a single loudspeaker connected to the venue sound system.

Man seated with bare feet and arms folder, listing to music at a live event. His bare feet are resting on four vibrotactile shakers.
Music appreciation at a live music event, using four foot shakers

We tested this concept recently at the Shuffledown music festival in Scotland.

Photo showing a green chair at a wooden table, with a vibrotactile hand shaker placed to either side of the chair.
Example set up for music appreciation using two vibrotactile hand shakers

Music production

Vibrotactile technology facilitates music production by musicians and producers who are deaf by replacing auditory cues.

Separate audio outputs from a digital audio workstation (DAW) can be sent (via an audio interface) to the vibrotactile shakers, enabling ‘vibrotactile monitoring.’

We tested this concept recently with D/deaf producer, writer and sign-song rapper SignKid. Read more here.

Man seated at a table playing a MIDI keyboard, with bare feet resting on four vibrotactile shakers.
SignKid using four vibrotactile foot shakers to jam in time with a multitrack recording