Music Use in Elementary and Middle School Classrooms for the Deaf


Kristi Brown

LeAnn Denney

The University of Tennessee

April 4, 1997

Key Words: Instructional Strategies, deaf education, 4-6


The use or non-use of music in classrooms with deaf students was investigated in this study. Using information from a questionnaire distributed to elementary and middle school teachers at a state school for the deaf in the southeastern region on their use or non-use of music and analyzed thematically, the researchers found that music is used to a limited extent in classrooms for the deaf. The findings and implications are discussed.


The purpose of this research is two-fold: to identify if music is used in classrooms for the deaf and to identify ways music is incorporated in classrooms with deaf students.



Although music has been used in educating persons who are deaf for at least 150 years, many people view the idea of using music in the classroom with deaf children as a strange and somewhat futile idea (Darrow & Heller, 1985). Research on music education for the deaf is limited to a few researchers. The focus of their research has been mainly on music for speech training . However, the research has shown that many deaf students have been denied the opportunity to experience any kind of music education in either residential or mainstream settings. A survey published in 1932 found that music was used in 91% of special education classes (Solomon, 1980). However, in a more recent study, only a little over half of the residential and day schools for students who are deaf surveyed offered music as a part of the curriculum. For those students in public schools, 47% of schools do not offer self-contained music classes for deaf students who are not mainstreamed (Darrow & Gfeller, 1991). Therefore, many deaf children are not provided with music classes and have limited exposure to music and its history. There are many reasons for the lack of music in the curriculum. As stated earlier, however, the primary reason appears to be the belief that any attempt to educate the deaf in the area of music is futile. This appears to stem from the idea that the ear is the sense organ that provides the pathway through which music appreciation occurs. Thus, there is a conclusion that someone who cannot hear cannot appreciate music.

Recent research offers a different conclusion. It suggests that music is a language that speaks to all people (Darrow, 1991). Therefore, one does not have to hear music to internalize the meaning of music. Furthermore, different meanings can be derived from music depending on the past experiences of the individual and how he or she relates to the music. According to Darrow, "The satisfaction derived from music is a matter of preference not handicap" (1985, p. 35). There are other senses through which d deaf individuals can understand and appreciate music. For example, a deaf individual can enjoy music through tactile and visual stimulation. Moreover, deaf individuals may also be able to hear tones that occur within their range of residual hearing. These data suggest that "because of the wide range of frequencies and usual intensity, the perception of music is generally more accessible to the hearing impaired student than the complexities of speech" (Darrow, 1985, p. 49). The hearing range of deaf children is highly variable and individualized. Often it is difficult to know exactly what the child is able to receive both in daily life and in auditory training.

Music could benefit a child in many areas of his/her life. Music is a part of cultural identity. Without exposure to music, its history, and its composers, deaf children are missing a valuable piece of the collective society 's cultural education. As Tracy states, "It [music] can express emotional experiences and mirror cultural heritage regardless of handicap" (1980, p. 744). Music can also be used as a relaxation tool for children who are tense or hyperactive. Related music objectives could include improving certain aspects of speech; improving bodily control and coordination; encouraging self-expression, imagination, and creativity; developing an awareness of the rhythm in the child 's environment; and promoting socialization by encouraging conventional behaviors (Fahey & Birkenshaw, 1972). All of this might be accomplished by focusing on rhythm, movement, and the prosodic elements of music.



If music education is an important part of any educational curriculum, how can teachers expose deaf children to music? Although use of music to support the development of speech and auditory training or more specifically of rhythms, constitutes a notable part of the literature in deaf education, it is not the focus of this study. The study also does not focus on the development of music classes for deaf children. Rather, we suggest that music can be used as a medium to enrich classroom content as it does for hearing students. Darrow and Gfeller state, "Research in perception and performance of music indicates that the skills of hearing impaired students are not significantly different from their hearing peers if appropriate and/or supplementary procedures are utilized " (1991, p. 36). For example, the violin and viola provide supplementary vibratory stimulation because of their placement on the shoulder. Also, cymbals provide vibratory stimulus and chromatic bells offer a wide range of pitches (Darrow, 1985, p. 55-56; Darrow, 1991, p. 34). The addition of music to a class could provide an additional layer of education, expression, and motivation for the students. For the purpose of our study, music is defined as including music theory (the elements of music which are sound, performing media: voices and instruments, rhythm, music notation, melody, harmony, key, musical texture, musical form, performance, and musical style), music history (the study of the changing musical styles that occur at certain time periods which are the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Classical, the Romantic, and the Twentieth Century), and music appreciation (listening or performing music for enjoyment and recreational purposes).



1. The researchers obtained a list of the teachers in the elementary and middle school departments from a list of teachers' names provided in the school's handbook. There were twenty elementary and middle school classroom teachers, with half being elementary and half being middle school.

2. The researchers sent a questionnaire to the teachers within each department. Our rationale for using this approach was that it will allow for greater anonymity since the participant does not meet the researchers, as in an interview. Also, a questionnaire is not as time consuming for the subject as is an interview. The last question on the questionnaire was open-ended: How do you use music in your classroom? By providing multiple choice answers or a checklist, the teachers were free to list anything they felt was a method for using music in the classroom. One risk involved was that the researcher could inadvertently identify a participant. A limitation of the method is that the teacher responses cannot completely convey what occurs in the classroom.

3. The researchers analyzed the data using a thematic approach. Although twenty questionnaires were sent, only sixteen were returned. Eight questionnaires were from elementary school and eight were from middle school. Analyzing the data using a thematic approach enabled the researchers to determine the similar and different ways music was used or if music was used, within and between the two departments.



The questionnaires were evenly divided in their responses. Eight of the questionnaires were from elementary. Four stated that they did not use music in their classrooms, and four did use music in their classrooms. Likewise, of the eight responses from middle school, four did not use music in the classroom, and four stated that they did use music in their classroom. It should be noted that those teachers who used music in their classrooms listed various methods by which it was used. The total responses regarding the use of music in the classroom were grouped thematically into four different areas: (1) music using voice or instruments; (2) music for speech training; (3) music related to subject areas; and (4) music as enrichment in order to enhance classroom learning.

Music using voice or instruments

Responses in this group included singing songs with sign, teaching students to play the handbells, individual listening activities, and a free exploration center using a keyboard.

"I have also used the handbells at Christmas--the children have learned two or three songs."

"I set up a small electronic keyboard and allowed the students to 'play' the piano. Some of the students with residual hearing really enjoyed it!"

Music for speech training

Responses in this group included teaching about voice--intonation, tone, pitch, on/off, and recognizing the presence of sound.

'' 'Listening time-body movement' I encourage the children to listen to the music even when they are...focusing on body movement to see if they could stop when [the music is] off."

Music related to subject areas

Responses in this group included music when studying about science and other cultures in social studies.

'Music was used during two lessons on sound waves, dB, and frequency."

"We study cultures in the older grades and always seem to get into [the cultural dances--[this] leaves a strong impression on the kids."

Music for enrichment to enhance classroom learning

Responses in this category included using rhythm to aid memorization, using music as a relaxation tool in order to provide a positive classroom climate by providing for the teacher's comfort, and using music as a learning tool in student initiated activities.

"Basically, I use music in the classroom for my peace of mind. Although I don't have a specific purpose for the students, I feel the music allows [me] to maintain a calm demeanor with the students (even during [those] more turbulent times)."

"I have had children bring me a tape and ask me to listen to it and write down the words for them."


The responses to the questionnaire were evenly distributed among elementary school and middle school teachers. It should be noted that elementary school at this residential school for the deaf includes preschool through fourth grade, and middle school includes fifth through eighth grade. Half of the sixteen responses indicated that the teachers did not use music in their classrooms. Those who did use music in the classroom listed a variety of ways in which music was incorporated in their classrooms for the deaf. There was no significant difference in the way music was used in elementary school as compared to that of middle school. However, it should be noted that one teacher indicated that he/she had been informed that teaching music to deaf children was inappropriate. Therefore, they may be a stigma attached to efforts to use music in the classroom with deaf students.



The data from this research suggest that music is used in four different ways in classrooms with deaf students: music using voice or instruments, music for speech training, music related to subject areas, and music to enhance classroom learning. These themes and the additional comments on the questionnaires underscore the research, which suggests that music is used to a limited extent in classrooms for the deaf. Although some of the respondents indicated the use of music to some extent in their classrooms, half of the teachers did not use music. Music is a way to enrich the classroom by providing memory aids, information about other cultures, and to provide experience with music and musical instruments. Therefore, additional research needs to be done to determine specific ways music has successfully been used in classrooms for the deaf. Also, this argues for research and change within teacher education programs. A teacher with training in music education may be more likely to incorporate elements of music within his/her classroom. Music provides an additional way for students, both deaf and hearing, to experience and learn about the world around them. All students deserve this opportunity and should not be denied the opportunity based on a "disability."



Darrow, A. (1991). An assessment and comparison of hearing impaired children's preference for timbre and musical instruments. Journal of Music Therapy, 28(1), 48-59.

Darrow, A. (1985). Music for the deaf. Music Educators Journal, 17(6), 33-35.

Darrow, A., & Gfeller K. (1991). A study of public school music programs mainstreaming hearing impaired students. Journal of Music Therapy, 28(1), 23-39.

Darrow, A, & Heller, G. H. (1985). Early advocates of music education for the hearing impaired: William Wolcott Turner and David Ely Bartlett. Journal of Research in Music Education, 33(4), 269-279.

Fahey, J., & Birkenshaw, L. (1972). Bypassing the ear: The perception of music by feeling and touch. Music Educators Journal, 58(8), 44-49.

Solomon, A. (1980). Music in special education before 1930: Hearing and speech development. Journal of Research in Music Education, 28 ,236-242.

Tracy, S. D. (1980, September). The human body: A unique media experience. American Annals of the Deaf, pp. 743-745.

Uploaded By: Jessica Soltesz/KSU/Deaf Education Major