The Sideshow

An interview with Austin Chapman, a deaf man who heard music for the first time two weeks ago

The Sideshow

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Austin Chapman says he was "born profoundly deaf" and has never understood music--or the people moved by it. But that changed two weeks ago, when he tried a new pair of hearing aids for the first time in years.

"[It] was the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around," Chapman, a 23-year-old filmmaker, wrote in a post on his studio's blog. "All music sounded like trash through my hearing aids."

He described what it was like to hear clearly for the first time:

I sat in the doctor's office frozen as a cacophony of sounds attacked me. The whir of the computer, the hum of the AC, the clacking of the keyboard, and when my best friend walked in I couldn't believe that he had a slight rasp to his voice.

Chapman, a recent Pepperdine graduate, posted his story on Reddit, asking for suggestions of what songs he should listen to next. He was inundated with responses, recommending everything from AC/DC to Vampire Weekend.

Yahoo News caught up with Chapman via email to find out more about his honed hearing--and the feedback his story's generated.

Yahoo: This is not some sort of elaborate viral marketing stunt for hearing aids, is it?

Chapman: Haha. No. I was worried it might come off that way so in my original post I didn't list the name or brand of my hearing aids. I deeply regret that because my inbox is now saturated with that question. I almost did not post it because I had written the story for myself and was on the fence about making it public because it was so personal.

Since everyone's been asking, what's the make and model of the hearing aids you switched to?

Phonak Naida S IX UP.

Why did you switch?

My parents told me I would be off their health insurance soon so I should get a new hearing aid. We talked about a colcher implant but decided it wasn't for me because the magnitude of the surgery scared me. My old hearing aids are only four years old so I really wasn't expecting much of a difference.

You say you were born "profoundly deaf"? What does that mean?

Some people lose their hearing after birth due to illness or accidents and that's quite different from my situation because I was born into a world of silence. The term "profoundly deaf" is used to represent the severity of hearing loss. The levels of deafness, from least to the most severe, are mild, moderate, severe and profound.

Most people think the ability to talk or lipread relies on how deaf a person is. That does have an influence, but ultimately it boils down to the amount of practice and speech therapy the individual has. Personally, I had 18 years of speech therapy but still couldn't communicate well with strangers until late in college.

You said you never understood music. Did you ever really try to?

Of course. I tried listening to music and I could never truly enjoy any songs. I could only hear bass and midtones but now I can finally hear the high pitches and that gave me the full picture of music.

Your friends gave you a crash course in music after you came home from the doctor's office. What was the first thing you listened to?

Mozart's requiem, "Lacrimosa."

After you posted your story soliciting music recommendations, several readers suggested starting with the history of music. Are you doing that?

Of course! I'm listening to the most well-received albums for every period and major genre of music. I realize what a unique position I'm in and would love to study the evolution of music with my virgin ears.

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Which modern music has been recommended the most?

Michael Jackson and Radiohead. I'm just starting to grasp the complexity of music and one thing that I've noticed about the most popular artists is that they all sound unique. When I hear a bad song, it usually sounds alright. It's not like I want to rip my hearing aids out but it makes me feel indifferent. Often, I'd stop listening without realizing it. But when a truly great song comes on, I'm filled with excitement and stop what I'm doing to soak it all in. I have not heard much Jackson except for "Thriller" and that was simply phenomenal. I've never heard any voice similar to his. And Radiohead is already one of my top five favorite living bands.

How much music have you listened to in the last two weeks?

Not enough. The problem is that I don't want to belittle any musician by listening to their track through crappy computer speakers so I've been listening with my car's sound system or through my TV so I can feel the bass. I've listened to about an hour or two of music every day.

Have you been to any concerts since you've been able to hear music?

I went to see the Penguin Prison perform a DJ set with Moon Boots and Perseus at the Dim Mak warehouse a few nights ago. The place is owned by Steve Aoki so the sound system probably cost north of $70,000. The bass was so heavy I felt it vibrating in my nose and lungs. It was such a rapturous experience, outmatched only by the first time hearing music. I literally could not stop myself from dancing and thumping to the beat. I will be going to as many live shows I can in the next couple years.

You're a filmmaker. How did you approach the music in your films before, and how has your approach changed?

Before my new hearing aids, I would simply talk to my composer about the emotional palette of specific scenes. I'd play the rough cut to several different friends with varying musical preferences and gauge the feedback. I always watch the faces of my test audience and study what parts bore or excite them.

I still do all of the above except that I'm sitting with the composer as he/she samples various tunes. When I shot my last short, never in a million years did I think I would be able to work on the soundtrack. Now a few months later, I'm sitting next to my friend layering different tracks.

For my Internet shorts, I would email a group of my friends offering a lunch for whoever picks the best song and I forced all of them to vote. Last week I picked my own song ("Staralfur" by Sigur Ros) for the first time ever.

Are you also queuing up movies with famous soundtracks to watch or rewatch? "The Graduate"? "Pulp Fiction"? "O' Brother Where Art Thou?"?

Of course! This is one of the most exciting aspects of my new hearing. I watched my favorite film ("Baraka") a few nights ago and was absolutely blown away. The part with the tribe chirping and waving their hands--I've seen the film many times but never knew how crazy the sounds were in that part. The men chirp and grunt in perfect unison.

Is your favorite sound still silence?

Absolutely. It's a sound I'm long familiar with and nothing else clears my mind better than absolute silence. The normal brain processes five senses at once so when you take one away you give yourself more processing power for the other senses. If I have my hearing aids off for more than a couple hours my vision gets sharper and I start to feel even further away. Most times I can feel someone walking up to me but if I've been in silence long enough I can feel them approaching from even further away. When I'm enjoying truly great food, I turn my hearing aids off and close my eyes so the only sensory information I get is the taste of the food. I turn my hearing aids off when I write, golf, wakeboard, rock climb and almost everything else. I only have them on for music or talking to people. I actually feel bad for hearing people; I wish more people could experience the power and peace of utter silence.

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