Nineteenth-Century Perspectives on Deafness and Music: An Introduction, by Anabel Maler

Anabel Maler’s essay on nineteenth-century American deafness and music is the first installment in a series of blog posts written by members of the disability and music scholarly community. Anabel Maler is a PhD student in Music Theory at the University of Chicago, and a member of the Society for Music Theory Interest Group in Music and Disability. If you are interested in writing a blog entry, please contact Samantha Bassler, the Social Media Officer, at samanthaebp at .

When the topic of my research comes up in conversation, I always pay careful attention to peoples’ reactions when I describe my work on music, deafness, and sign language. Some react with pleasant surprise and excitement at what is perceived to be an unusual area of interest.

Others express their skepticism about whether the deaf can really experience music, or create it through sign language. Of course, possibly the most common reaction of all is to make a reference to this scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus:

The second reaction is the one that interests me right now, because although many people have responded to my projects with skepticism, this reaction still manages to take me by surprise. The concept that deaf people cannot experience music, or can only experience it through technological intervention, is one that seems ingrained in our culture, and that usually goes unquestioned. For my next research project, I decided to go back to the nineteenth century to try to find the roots of our attitudes towards deafness and music. My questions about the historical relationship of music and deafness has led to many hours perusing issues of nineteenth-century American journals on deaf education, and I would like to present some of my findings here. First, though, a brief explanation of nineteenth-century American views on deafness and education is in order.

There were two main methods of deaf education in nineteenth-century America: in one corner, the manualists, and in the other corner, the oralists. In 1817, Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet founded the first school for deaf students in the United States: the American Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford, Connecticut. The school’s head teacher was the deaf Parisian schoolteacher Laurent Clerc, who used sign language to instruct his students at the American Asylum. This manner of instructing deaf students was known as the manual method. For the first half of the nineteenth century, the manual method flourished in America, led by Gallaudet’s son, Edward Miner Gallaudet.

By the mid-nineteenth century, another method of deaf education entered the American consciousness: the oral method, led by Alexander Graham Bell. Proponents of the oral method forbade the use of sign language in their classrooms, instead focusing all of their attention on teaching speech and lip-reading. Deaf Americans thus found themselves at the center of a heated debate in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

You may know Bell as the inventor of the telephone, but there are a couple of other things to know about A.G.:

  1. He was a supporter and practitioner of the oralist method of deaf education.

  2. He was also a supporter of the eugenicist movement, although presumably he wasn’t a practitioner of that one (I hope). Alarmed by the tendency of the deaf to intermarry, Bell feared that allowing the deaf to continue forming communities that communicated via sign language would lead to the formation of a “deaf race.”

While manualist instructors were concerned with the moral and religious education of the children in their care, oralists were mostly interested in assimilating deaf people into hearing society. These views were reflected in how the two types of educators thought about music in relation to deafness. For example, in 1848 W.W. Turner wrote the following in a manualist publication:

“If the question be raised, ‘Cui bono?’—what possible benefit can result from teaching music to the deaf or from exercising them in musical performances when learned?—it may be answered: What benefit is ever derived from teaching music? It is a source of intellectual gratification. It is a means of intellectual cultivation.”

Oralists, by contrast, viewed music as completely absent from the lives of the deaf before technological intervention. Let’s look at a quote from an article called “Music for the Deaf and Dumb,” published in 1897:

“With the aid of Professor McKendrick’s invention deaf persons can attend the opera and occupy their boxes in any part of the house, however remote. They can dress as others dress, converse as others converse, do as others do, with nothing conspicuous about them, differing thus from other deaf process treatment. […] This applies to all deaf people and especially to the deaf and dumb who will, for the first time, enjoy musical rhythm and hear the notes of human warblers.”

Unlike manualists, oralists were not concerned with how the deaf could experience music on their own terms; rather, they wanted the deaf to experience music as hearing people did through technological innovations, in order to assimilate them into the hearing world. They saw this experience as the “first time” that the deaf were able to enjoy music, although it is clear from manualist publications that the deaf had been experiencing and enjoying music in other ways for many decades prior.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the oralist movement gained immense popularity and experienced several important victories, like the Milan Congress of 1880, the suppression of sign language such that by 1920 only 20 percent of deaf students were taught using sign, and the near-total purging of deaf teachers from schools for the deaf. At the same time, technological advancements made the oralists’ dream, for the deaf to experience music in the same way as the hearing, seem like it could become a reality. In 1883, A.G. Bell published his famous lecture on the formation of a deaf race, which fed into the public’s fear of a race seemingly without sound or music.

Although we have ceased to fear the development of a deaf race, and although sign language experienced a major comeback when it was finally recognized as a natural language, our present day views on deafness and music remain pretty much the same as they were in the late nineteenth century. While articles on music therapy and cochlear implants abound, scholarly articles on the deaf experience of music are rare, and as such, the history of music in Deaf culture remains a mystery. My hope is that researching music and deaf education in the nineteenth century will help fill some of the gaps in our knowledge, and eventually bring our understanding of music and deafness into the twenty-first century.


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