Good Vibrations – Touching Sound

Touch the Sound, a German documentary about deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, explores and expands our conventional thoughts on sound and hearing.  Most people don’t question how they hear, it’s taken as a given that this occurs through the ears. Glennie’s story illustrates some basic principles of sound, and deepens our understanding of other properties of sound.

“Hearing is a form of touch,” she says. “You feel it through your body, and sometimes it almost hits your face.”

Evelyn Glennie started to lose her hearing at age 8.  She started playing piano the same year.  By age 11, she was totally dependent on the use of hearing aids.  As Glennie lost her hearing, she began to rely more heavily on her physical awareness of the vibration of sound.  She says,

“Eventually I managed to distinguish the rough pitch of notes by associating where on my body I felt the sound with the sense of perfect pitch I had before losing my hearing.”

Glennie also always plays barefoot to maximize the amount of vibration that she can pick up.

Simple diagram showing low frequency oscillations of sound have slower oscillations than high frequency sounds

In a poignant scene in the film, Glennie is seen instructing a young deaf student in how to play a deeply resonant drum.  She displays how the strength of the hit will cause a vibration to be felt at different sections of the arm.  In the film, you can see the student’s face light up with the discovery.

Another technique for visualizing sound without hearing is to watch the vibration of the drum skin stretched over the head of the drum.  If you have a speaker at home with an exposed cone, you can feel or watch the speaker head push in and out.  The lowest frequencies are the easiest to see because their oscillations are slow, and have a more visible pulse.


Glennie’s methods for interpreting sounds represent new possibilities for assistive technology.  Vibration APIs are starting to become available for various mobile devices.  Developers can start using these APIs to think of new ways to communicate sound through vibration.

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