Our responses to sounds are very individual. A sound that grates on one person’s ear can be pleasurable for another. Our nervous system may recognise particular sounds as ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ and we may have emotional responses to sounds, depending on associations with past experience, levels of stress and whether or not we have any control over the sound and our surroundings. For example the sound of thunder might arouse fear in some people and excitement for others.
Our responses may also be different on different days. If I am feeling happy and relaxed I might enjoy sounds that would be overwhelming or unpleasant when I am tired or stressed, for example.
Sounds and music have the power to change our mood, help regulate our nervous system, and to inform us about the world around us. This guidance shows you how you can explore preferences for and effects of familiar and unfamiliar sounds through the sense of hearing (which includes feeling vibration).
What you need
Things that make sound, which might include:
Instruments, kitchen utensils, a survival blanket, crisp packets, balloons, a whoopee cushion, paper, cellophane, cardboard or plastic tubes to blow down, bowls, pans or bottles with water in, plastic bottles with beans, rice, gravel, small toys inside….. and anything else you can think of. Your voice and body are also great resources for soundmaking!
Be aware that how sound is experienced may be mediated by many factors including sensory impairment or sensory processing issues. Hearing aids will add another layer of uncertainty as to exactly what the person is hearing and may cause heightened sensitivity to some sounds and frequencies. Think carefully about the volume of the sounds you make and how close the sound is to the person, always being cautious to begin with. It is also important to remember that we can experience vibration through the whole body, so someone with a hearing impairment may experience vibration rather than sound.
Guidance and instructions
- You might want to begin by focusing on one kind of soundmaker at a time. There are lots of different ways to make sounds with paper, for instance, by tearing, scrunching scratching and rustling. Balloons are good fun, especially when they make farty noises. As well as the enjoyment of sound you have the build up of anticipation as you blow up the balloon then let it go. A survival blanket has a lovely visual element as well as potential for soundmaking. Anything and everything is worth a try.
- Or you may want to begin with a ‘taster’ session – assemble as many potential soundmakers as you can – or take a tour around your home and see how many sounds you can make or find.
- Initially, most people will benefit from being able to see the soundmaker and the sound being made – this will minimise the chance of provoking a startled response and encourage the senses of sight and hearing to work together.
- As noted above, what we hear as sound is actually vibration, and our whole bodies are capable of feeling those vibrations. With care and sensitivity it may be helpful to make sounds near or on different body parts, for example placing a drum or something to tap under the feet, or on the tummy. Be extra sensitive around the head – some people enjoy sensing sound and vibration through the bones of the head, but for others it is overwhelming and has the potential to damage hearing: when the soundmaker is closer to the other person’s ears than to our own, it is more difficult for us to judge the impact the sound may have.
- Monitor responses throughout: observe body language and facial expression and offer support or adjust your activity accordingly. Working with sounds can be very tiring as they can affect us on many levels, so go gently and with a care to noticing signs that indicate the need to stop or change the activity.
- Once you have a ‘library’ of preferred sounds, you can use them in different ways to explore them together and maintain interest.
- Play with speed and volume… sounds can be heard very differently depending on how they are played, so try fast, slow, quiet, loud, and moving from one extreme to the other… what happens when you start slowly and build up the speed?
- Some sounds will lend themselves to very simple rhythm patterns – offer plenty of repetition so that there is time to become familiar with the rhythm.
- Some sounds may lend themselves more to ‘sound effects’ and you might find that they fit in with a rhyme, a song or a story – a very simple example would be to add body sounds or other appropriate sounds to ‘I hear thunder’: a loud sound for the thunder and a tapping sounds for ‘pitter patter’.
- Sounds can also be pleasurable in themselves, and can function as communication: playing a sound in a ‘burst-pause’ pattern gives the recipient time and space to respond, and may foster the beginnings of a 2 way interaction
- Look for any small movements that indicate that your partner would like to have a go at making the sound themselves: support these by offering the object or material in a safe way, with as little physical intervention as possible. If you feel that help is needed, it is preferable to place your own hand under theirs, allowing as much communication from their hand to yours as possible: you will feel any tiny movements or stirrings towards movement, and you can make the sound together; in this way you are supporting the person to make the sound but also to initiate the soundmaking.
- Look for movements, sounds, expressions, behaviours or gestures that indicate a request for ‘more’ or ‘stop’.
- Offer a clear ending to the activity – perhaps there is a particular sound that you will use to begin and end soundmaking, or a box or bag where your soundmakers go when they have finished. You could say ‘goodbye’ to them as they go in the box. It might be appropriate to very gently trace around the ears with a finger to thank your ears for working so hard.
What to observe, assess, record
- Try the same sound on different days or at different times of the day – are responses consistent or variable?
- Look for movements or gestures that show anticipation of a particular sound; repeat activities to see whether these responses are consistent. Always respect a negative response to a particular sound.
- Do responses change when you vary the speed, volume or dynamics of the sound?
- Is there a change in response when the sound is rhythmic?
- Is there a change in response when the sound is embedded in a song or story?
- Make a note of which sounds are preferred, any nuances in playing that affect responses, and the changes that you see in face, body and behaviour.
- You might want to think about a personal ‘sound library’ that can become a resource: perhaps a particular sound could be used as an object of reference for an activity, or add interest to a routine activity.
Have fun opening up the world of sound and be open to where it might lead: it might offer new directions for interaction and communication, it may become a rich source of pleasure as you explore sounds together.
Soundabout Listening Resources – Tuning In to Music consists of tracks that are designed to help children and adults with profound learning difficulties understand and enjoy songs, by breaking the music down into the separate sounds, patterns and motifs of which it is made up.
© Eleanor Gibson
Created May 2021