Disability Studies for Musicians: An Introduction

Curious about Disability Studies, but unsure what it is? This is a short primer on the subfield, covering some basic principles of Disability Studies especially relevant for musicologists and music theorists. I delivered a shorter version of this talk at the meeting of the Music & Disability Study Group at AMS in Pittsburgh (2013). —Blake Howe


Disability as Culture

One of the central arguments of Disability Studies is that disability, in addition to any physical basis it may have, also operates culturally. We will relegate the study of biological impairment to the medical establishment, but the cultural study of disability is best undertaken by humanists—by literary theorists, historians, and, yes, musicians.

Music scholars have usually pursued this cultural study of disability from two perspectives. Some scholars adopt ethnographic or sociological methodologies, examining the ways in which musicians may have identified as disabled, how disability may have impacted the mechanics of their craft, and how disability may have influenced their reception. For example, Terry Rowden’s book The Songs of Blind Folk (2012) examines cultures of blindness among African-American musicians, while Jeannette Jones and Anabel Maler have recently undertaken studies of song signing, exploring the genre’s negotiation of Deaf identity through music performance. These and other studies seek to understand disability as an important component of identity, akin to gender, sexuality, or race.

Scholars have also considered musical representations of disability, by both disabled and nondisabled composers. Through harmonic imbalance, melodic disfluency, or formal deformations, musical texts may be said to embody various disabled states; indeed, as Joseph N. Straus has shown, many theoretical traditions (including embodiment, energetics, the Formenlehre) commonly apply metaphors of disability to describe musical dysfunction. Supplemental texts, such as song lyrics, opera librettos, and film images, can further specify the presence of a disability within a musical work. These representations of disability tend to follow familiar cultural scripts and archetypes—for instance, the associations between disfigurement and derangement (Rigoletto, Captain Ahab, Darth Vader), between stuttering and feeble-mindedness (Demo in Giasone, Vašek in The Bartered Bride), and between blindness and prophecy (Tiresias in Oedipus rex). Of course, there is no medical basis for these associations; they are entirely cultural.


Models of Disability

The word disability establishes a binary between what one can do (ability) and what one cannot do (dis-ability). Indeed, throughout history disability often emerges as an antithesis to some other desirable standard.

Before the nineteenth century, this standard was often imagined as an idealized body: the body of God, Adam before the Fall, the King, the cosmos, or some other perfection, from which all human bodies were poorly fractioned and morally compromised. This is the moral or religious model of disability, in which bodily differences are stigmatized as deviant from some elusive ideal. Notably, this ideal body has been frequently imagined as music, emblemized by Pythagorean ratios and consonant harmony. For example, in Abraham Cowley’s Davideis (1656), the human body is “all o’re Harmonie./Storehouse of all Proportions! single Quire!/Which first Gods Breath did tunefully inspire!” Through sympathetic vibration, David may restore Saul’s possessed body to this harmonious state: “Thus Davids Lyre did Sauls wild rage controul./And tun’d the harsh disorders of his Soul.”

Beginning in the nineteenth century, this “ideal body” was usurped by the “normal body.” Normalcy, a concept popularized by the rise of statistics, imagines human morphology on a bell curve: most people are of average height, while some are too tall, and others are too short. This is the medical model of disability, in which disabled people are cast as outliers, requiring either rehabilitation by medical science or elimination by eugenics. A potent operatic example of the power of normalcy may be found in the “mad scene” of Lucia di Lammermoor—there, a chorus of “normal” onlookers frames Lucia’s madness as deviant. (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson pathologizes such normal populations with a provocative term: the normate.)

More recently, the social model of disability, advocated by the Disability Rights Movement of the 1980s, has argued for the value of bodily difference. Under this model, disability is not a fixed, medical condition; rather, it emerges from a society that chooses to accommodate some bodies and exclude others. A wheelchair user is disabled by curbs, but not by sloped curbs. A Deaf person is disabled by oral language, but not by sign language. What is interesting (and, for many disability scholars, ethical) about this model is that it assigns stigma not to the imperfect person or to the abnormal person, but rather to the exclusionary societies that fail to accommodate bodily differences.

Although I have arranged the religious, medical, and social models of disability chronologically, I suspect they have always coexisted, each one emerging as dominant at different historical moments. What remains consistent is the binary structure through which disabilities received their definition: the ideal body vs. the imperfect body, the normal body vs. the abnormal body, and the accommodated body vs. the unaccommodated body. Of course, many scholars have recently sought to eradicate these binary distinctions, reconceiving bodily difference without hierarchy. For example, Jennifer Iverson has argued that Björk’s electronica envisions a posthuman fusion of the natural body with prosthetic technology—bypassing familiar hierarchies that prioritize the unassisted body.


Disability Narrative

Many narratives, requiring tension before release, requiring a problem before its resolution, appropriate disability as their obstacle of choice. David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder have termed this appropriation of disability narrative prosthesis. The narrative prosthesis (usually a disabled character within a story) has two main functions: it gives the story a problem to solve; and it defines by counterexample the desirability of the subsequent resolution. For example, Luke Skywalker’s body derives its naturalness in contradistinction to Darth Vader’s artificial body. In the end, the able-bodied hero triumphs.

Once the problem of disability has been introduced within a narrative, how does the story resolve? Disability scholars have identified some familiar scenarios:

  • The disability may be rehabilitated, or the disabled character may be expelled. This is what one disability scholar terms the “cure or kill” paradigm—both solutions eliminate disability from the story. We might think of the many mad characters in opera who regain their reason just before curtain call (Handel’s Orlando or Paisiello’s Nina). We might also think of the many mad characters who don’t last that long (Wozzeck or Peter Grimes). The mechanism of the “cure” need not be medical. For example, Stephanie Jensen-Moulton has identified a cure narrative in television series Glee: in one episode, a Deaf show choir is normalized (“cured” of their deafness) by the intrusion of singing voices.
  • Disabled characters may also “overcome” their disabilities—acquiring superpowers that render their disabilities moot. Performances by disabled musicians are frequently received in this way. In some of my own work, I have shown how reviewers of Paul Wittgenstein claimed that the pianist “redeemed his body” through performance.
  • More benignly, bodily impairments may also receive accommodation so that they no longer signify as disabilities. I’m speculating here, but perhaps this is what happens to the sleepwalking Amina: La sonnambula ends not when her condition is cured, not when her character is expelled, but rather when the reasons for her erratic behavior are discovered and recognized.

In all of these examples, disability presents a problem within a narrative, and the elimination, rehabilitation, or accommodation of that disability participates in the story’s resolution. Note that few of these stories are actually about disability—rather, disability has been frequently appropriated as a rhetorically powerful marker of difference, as a way to emblemize other forms of estrangement.

These basic principles are subject to much nuance and revision. Indeed, as much as Disability Studies can offer new insights about musical topics, music can also offer many new insights about disability. There is much exciting work in our subfield (on these and many other topics), and I encourage interested scholars to peruse our bibliography of recent publications for more information.


One thought on “Disability Studies for Musicians: An Introduction

  1. Andrew Dell’Antonio on Performing Disabled Bodies, Disabled Bodies Performing | Felicia M. Miyakawa, Independent Musicologist

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