23 September 2019 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Faculty, Librarian, Student/Researcher

Seeing and Feeling the Music

How ASL interpreter Amber Galloway Gallego is making music more accessible to the hearing impaired.

By Michael Jarema, contributing writer

Amber Galloway Gallego is an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter who suffers from progressive hearing loss. Someday, she’ll be completely deaf.

She wears hearing aids and reads lips and has been around deaf people nearly her entire life – her babysitter had two deaf children; her father dated a woman with a deaf child; and in college, she befriended a group of deaf students who introduced her to ASL.

Although Gallego now holds a Master’s degree in ASL/English interpreting and has been described as the most recognizable sign language interpreter in the United States, the field wasn’t one she originally planned to pursue. She wanted to be a rap artist.

And, in a unique way, she is. You may have seen the viral video1 of Gallego on stage at a Twista concert in August 2019. Gallego is one of a handful of ASL interpreters who specialize in interpreting concerts and music festivals. She’s in high demand, specializing in interpreting rap and hip-hop music.

What’s inspired her success?

In an interview with Jessi Roti of the Chicago Tribune2, Gallego related a particular frustration she’s had, perhaps since childhood. She described speaking to a group of deaf friends after a concert.

“I had one deaf friend say, 'Well, music isn't for deaf people anyway, so it's okay if we're bored. It's not about us, it's a hearing thing,’” she recalled.

But Gallego disagreed with this assessment.

"Music is an everything thing,” she said.

A talent for signing

Gallego first realized she had a talent for interpreting music when, at a house party with deaf friends, she spontaneously jumped up and started interpreting a song playing on the stereo. Using whole-body gestures, she conveyed the feeling of the music. With facial expressions, she channeled the emotion of the lyrics while signing their translation in ASL.

Her friends had never seen anything like it. It made music an entirely new, layered experience for them. And it was the style of music interpretation Amber uses today. She doesn’t just sign the lyrics.

As Roti described it:

[Gallego] discusses music in its fullest form: the way the instruments speak with one another, the way the vocalist conveys his or her communication and the way hearing folks recognize when the beat drops. Traditional ASL interpreters had been told to leave that out. They're told not to move, not to distract from the artists onstage. They don't represent the instruments or how heavy the bass sounds at any time in the song. Galloway-Gallego's style smashes that, instead providing what she has been told by deaf festivalgoers is a "life-changing experience."

Gallego succinctly summed up her approach to signing music for Mike Clay and Loretta Florance of Sydney, Australia’s ABC Premium News3, “I'm actually...painting the pictures, more so than just following word by word.”

Gallego’s process

ASL and other sign languages are not word-for-word translations of spoken language. They have their own grammar and syntax. Meaning is key; ideas and intent are framed and incorporated.

Amber described ASL to Clay and Florance as “a foreign language… grammatically different from English.”

For Amber, simply signing lyrics using ASL doesn’t fully convey the concert experience.

Clay and Florance characterized Gallego’s process simply as “...a lot of work.” She learns the songs before she goes onstage, “‘making movies’ in her head.” She memorizes the lyrics of all the songs the performers are to play, interpreting their intent and enacting the emotion of the music in gestures and expressions.

As Amber herself put it, “I hear the song and I start picturing how it's supposed to look and how it's supposed to be conveyed.”

Speaking through an interpreter with Ethan Williams of Regina, Saskatchewan’s Leader Post4, Gallego explained that her goal when interpreting music is to give deaf audience members the ability to understand different sounds – a technique that comprises intricately signing each instrument.

“If you've got the bass you know that's a lower frequency," she said, bringing her arms down and mimicking the deep, thumping sound the instrument makes. "There's all types of instruments that have a voice and they play a role.”

The science behind her process

“Mostly I just feel the vibrations and the beat and sometimes I can hear the music, but it's more about the vibrations for me,” Emily Addincoat, a 20 year-old deaf woman told Clay and Florance.

Like hearing people, she plays music through speakers at home and through headphones when in public. But she plays it to feel the vibrations. And she plays music so loud (at least in her headphones) that at one point she was complimented by a stranger for her taste in music.

“That was the first time I realised how loud my music was," she said.

According to Jane Brew, an audiologist interviewed by Clay and Florance, Addincoat’s method of experiencing music through vibrations is typical of deaf people.

Brew explained:

The experience of listening to very loud music with very bass-heavy music is a very visceral experience. If you've only got very limited hearing or you are completely deaf, that's your way of accessing the sound, that's your way of accessing the music.

But according to Brew, sight also plays a role in deaf people’s experience of music, especially in those who’ve had little or no hearing since birth. “We do know through brain imaging that someone who has grown up without access to sound, the parts of the brain that would usually light up to sound are maybe lighting up to visual stimulation instead,” Brew explained.

It’s something Clay and Florance described as “the sight of music.” And if Amber’s process seems subjective, it is – she’s interpreting, after all. But Brew’s account of the sight of music suggests there’s a science behind what Amber does. Music can be visual – particularly to deaf audiences.

Addincoat concurred. Live concerts, according Clay and Florance, “are her favorite way to consume music.” For her, it’s a multi-sensory experience and being unable to hear does not hamper her enjoyment.

“[Concerts are] visual. I can see everything,” she told the reporters, adding, “I can also feel the vibrations.” Plus, Addincoat explained that she also studies the lyrics to better know the songs, which she often does after experiencing a new song in concert for the first time.

Why she does what she does

In addition to her impromptu interpretation of music for friends at the house party, Gallego has had other epiphanies which have inspired her career.

She told Clay and Florance, “I saw these deaf kids and they were dancing all over the place and signing to the music and I was like, 'Whoa, deaf people do love music'. For a long time, everybody told me deaf people didn't like music.”

It was a moment that made Gallego realize the extent to which deaf and hard-of-hearing people are marginalized in mainstream society. She described to William her passion for making music more accessible to everyone:

{Hearing impaired people are] always fighting for access to communication...They can't immerse themselves [in music the traditional way]. That's why it's important that we have this process of taking down those barriers, so that everybody – regardless of whether they can hear or not hear – is able to access that same experience. It's something we can't just assume that because [deaf and hard-of-hearing people] have limited hearing or no hearing, they wouldn't appreciate (music). Music speaks to our souls and we have members of our community that really enjoy music.

Despite 1990’s Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires producers of public performances to provide ASL interpreters when requested, Gallego realized the quality of those interpretations was widely lacking.

Referring to her deaf friends, she told Williams, “They were telling me they didn't have positive music experiences with interpreters...I realized there needed to be some improvement in the work of interpretations and access to the music.

Inclusion and the “surround body experience”

While Gallego has been interpreting music for over 19 years, she came to international attention in 2013 when a video of her interpreting for rapper Kendrick Lamar at Lollapalooza went viral. In all, she estimates she’s performed at over 400 concerts. Television appearances include a 2014 rap battle-style competition on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where Amber went up against two other interpreters signing to rapper Wiz Khalifa.

She’s also launched her own company, Amber G Productions, which employs interpreters trained in her technique to provide ASL interpretation services, as well as conduct workshops and motivational speaking events for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences worldwide.

“Technology is the way to go to enhance the experience to bring about more inclusion,” she said in a recent article with ECN5, an engineering trade journal.

In particular, she was talking about a revolutionary wearable device for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. It’s called Music: Not Impossible. Created by Not Impossible Labs, a Venice, California-based innovation laboratory whose mission statement is “technology for the sake of humanity,” the device uses the skin as a “canvas” to translate music into vibrations “through the integration of hardware, software, wearables and wireless communication.”

The ECN article describes Music: Not Impossible as a “wearable system”: “(It) includes a torso harness, two wristbands, and two ankle bands, which means that there are several areas of vibration – a much better experience than going without shoes or standing next to a speaker. In fact, this is a ‘surround body experience.’"

The theory behind the device – that of using vibrations to translate music into a form the deaf and hard-of-hearing can experience, seems in alignment with Gallego’s approach to translating music for hearing-impaired audiences.

In the article, she explained, “Deaf people feel things on an enhanced level...In fact, a friend of mine, she cuts her hair at a specific length because she says her hair vibrates perfectly at that specific length – and that allows her to experience the music.”

The article from ECN also considered how Music: Not Impossible might enhance the concert-going experience for all people. Rather than just “an accommodation” for the hearing impaired, the technology creates an experience that can “be transformative for the deaf and hearing communities alike.”

Other words, projects like Music: Not Impossible can enable all people to share in a different way of enjoying music, regardless of their ability to hear.

Gallego explained:

Music has inundated our society in the last 20 years or so more than ever. So right now if we break down those barriers, people will have greater access to it than ever before. If we start thinking so much bigger than ourselves and engaging with those who are differently abled, there’s a bigger opportunity to truly bring about equality to the experience.

And that sounds like the very definition of inclusion.


*Image by Missmojorising is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

  1. Moran, L. (2019, Aug 20). Sign language Interpreter Goes Word-for-Word with Twista, Steals the Show. Indexed in ProQuest One Academic and ProQuest Central.
  2. Roti, J. (2017, Aug 3). Lolla Isn't Just for Hearing World. Chicago Tribune. Available from ProQuest One Academic and Global Newsstream.
  3. Clay, M. & Florance, L. (2016, May 7). Feeling the Beat: What it's Like to be a Deaf Music Fan. ABC Premium News. Available from ProQuest One Academic and ProQuest Central.
  4. Williams, E. (2019, Jul 26). 'It's Part of the Language': ASL Interpreter Teaches the Art of Bringing Music to Life. Leader Post. Available from ProQuest One Academic and Canadian Major Dailies.
  5. Anonymous. (2019, Apr 15). How the Deaf Experience Music – Then and Now. ECN. Available from ProQuest One Academic and SciTech Premium.


Michael Jarema is an Ypsilanti, Michigan-based writer, filmmaker, sometime-foodie, and full-time craft beer enthusiast. He regularly incorporates the latter when working on his current pet writing project – a graphic novel titled, I Kill Nazis with Dinosaurs.