Interpreting Songs for the Deaf

Signing songs for the deaf is a great way for students to learn a LOT of vocabulary and retain that vocabulary for a long time.

If you need to interpret a song, I suggest finding a native Deaf signer or ASL interpreter to help out. If that’s not possible, the approach you take to interpret the song depends on your goal.

Here are the most common goals for interpreting songs and the method used for each:

  1. To practice American Sign Language.
    If your goal is to practice ASL, here is how you would interpret the song:

    • Thoroughly analyze the song and determine the actual meaning of the lyrics.
    • Interpret that message into ASL.
    • Use the song as background music as you sign the interpretation. Don’t try to match your signs to the lyrics or the beat of the music. Try to consider the general tempo of the music and use that to choose a good flow for your signing.
  2. To practice “contact signing” or Pidgin Signed English (PSE).
    If your goal is to practice the “mix” sign system of ASL and English, here is how you would interpret the song:

    • Choose conceptually accurate ASL signs and follow the word order of the lyrics.
    • Do not use filler words such as “a, an, the, be, was, were, etc.”
    • Try to sign the concept of the message when it’s obvious.
  3. To practice Signed English or SEE.
    If your goal is to practice Signed English or SEE (commonly used in Deaf Schools or Day Programs), you would interpret the song word-for-word. This method is only recommended for those who are learning Signed English or SEE and need to practice their vocabulary or who are interpreting for a deaf person who wants to know the exact lyrics. Most Deaf people do not prefer this method.

Additional tips:

  • Make sure that with whichever method you use, that you use facial expressions and use the visual ASL principles when appropriate.
  • When there are instrumental-only parts in the song, the best way to interpret that is with dance. Otherwise, I would edit the music to remove any lenghthy non-lyrical parts to the song.
  • Contrary to popular belief, deaf people can enjoy music. They can feel the vibrations of the music. If you attend a “deaf” concert, you will notice that they’ve cranked up the bass! But…
  • Keep in mind that music and ASL music interpretation is not accepted by all in the Deaf community. So, if you plan to perform the song in front of people, be prepared for some criticism (especially if you’re not interpreting into pure ASL).

You can see examples of interpreted songs for the deaf (and submit your own!) on our Best Songs in Sign Language page.

3 replies
  1. Sam
    Sam says:

    I think a cited source is missing to give credit to the original person that gave those suggestions. You changed the wording slightly in your suggestions, but the other parts are word for word. Give credit where credit is due. The original discussion forum is titled “The signing of songs in ASL” on the Lifeprint website. Taught by Dr. William Vicars, Bill Vicars, and The GOATP (greatest of all time professor).


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