Music and Lyricals in Song without Words

A Review of Gerald Shea's Memoir

The Whiffenpoofs, Yale’s a cappella singing group, in 1964. Shea appears seated, center left, holding the cup.
At age 34, Gerald Shea suddenly realized he had been living with a severe high- and mid-frequency hearing loss for three decades. He had been getting by, remarkably, through a combination of lipreading and interpreting garbled words. Music, on the other hand, was a liberating force, the only stress-free area of Shea’s life.

In his new memoir, Song without Words, Shea relates how he sang in an a cappella group while attending Yale; joyfully blasted opera records while house sitting in France; and played piano for a hearing specialist in New Orleans. Of his time singing with the Whiffenpoofs at Yale, he explains that when “words are a riddle for you but musical notes are not, the music makes you free. You have your song without words: you don’t need to listen to the words of others. The voices singing beside me were clear enough, and we would serenade the world.”

While most articles and books on music and hearing loss assume an implicit negative relationship between the two (hearing loss hinders one’s ability to listen to music), Song without Words treats music in a purely positive sense as it relates to hearing loss. Shea declares: “Music is thus in many respects, and in its various forms… the heart of the deaf.”

The main premise of the book—the author not knowing he had a significant hearing loss since an early childhood bout with scarlet fever—might seem implausible to some, but makes perfect sense in Shea’s graceful retelling. He felt physically normal, and thought he was perhaps mentally or socially impaired, different somehow, but certainly not deaf.

People who can hear perfectly well might assume that hearing loss is just like having the volume dial turned down on your world. But for Shea and countless others, it’s not really about volume. His memoir primarily expresses the experience as one of constantly trying to figure out the words that other people are saying—not because he literally can’t hear them, but because much of what he does hear sounds like gibberish.

A recent NPR article on hearing loss provides sound clips of what speech can sound like to people with different types of hearing loss. The first clip, which demonstrates how high-frequency hearing loss can leave the listener with a “muddy” version of the original without much distinction between consonants, is probably closest to Shea’s everyday experience.

In Song without Words, Shea has a term for those resulting garbled words: “lyricals.” When he heard, for example, “Didn’t know you had a sinew,” he would reinterpret it in seconds as the more sensible “Didn’t know you had it in you.” His attentive, imaginative listening combined with his constant rewriting of speech creates a kind of poetry and forms the core of the memoir, revealing how Shea’s literary and musical mind helped him cope with a loss he didn’t even know he had.

Speaking of his musically inclined mind, music made for some of the most powerful passages in the book; I wished, for my own sake, that the book were more about music and less about corporate law, but the heavy focus on Shea’s career is understandable since it was the cause for most of his struggles. Living with a high- and mid-frequency hearing loss, Shea always had to put in extra effort while listening, especially during classes, movies, group conversations, and eventually, meetings and conference calls in his demanding job as a corporate lawyer.

Song without Words gives a poetic window into the everyday struggles of a person with a significant hearing loss, yet also shows the way for living with a loss with acceptance, creativity, and even joy.

Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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