AMS Music and Disability Study Group Blog

Welcome to the first in a series of blog posts from members of the AMS Music and Disability Study Group (MDSG) and the Society for Music Theory Music and Disability Interest Group (SMT MDIG). Each post will include information about the person’s research and history with the study/interest group, their future plans within music and disability studies, and their vision for the discipline. We intend for these blogs to appear in a monthly rhythm, and welcome responses and comments. Any questions about the blog series should be directed to its editor, James Deaville. We begin the series with a blog post by Samantha Bassler, co-chair of the MDSG.

Music and Disability at the American Musicological Society and the Intersection of Disability Activism and Music Studies

by Samantha Bassler

The inaugural meeting of the AMS music and disability study group was at the 2013 annual meeting in Pittsburgh, with a panel on recent research by Chris Macklin, Stefan Honisch, and myself, as well as a breakfast organizational meeting for business. Blake Howe delivered an introduction to music and disability studies, which was later published on the AMS blog, Musicology Now. Before the MSDG’s official formation as an AMS study group, many musicologists studying music and disability were active with the Society for Music Theory Interest Group on music and disability, founded by Joseph Straus, and joint AMS/SMT conferences included meetings with both musicologists and music theorists present. The 2016 publication of the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies includes contributions by both music theorists and musicologists.

The threefold mission of the MDSG highlights the scholarly and activist influence within our discipline and our Society, and through those means it intends to support disability studies and activism more broadly within the wider culture of the United States and beyond. We are an international group that uses music scholarship as our means to challenge the status quo and to augment traditional studies of music, but also as a lens through which to view culture and to advocate for the social model of disability. We want to make people aware of the discrimination faced by disabled populations, and also of the legal support enacted by governments to protect the rights of disabled people.

Presently, my academic work in music and disability studies is, broadly-speaking, to use disability as a lens for understanding cultural studies of music (mostly early-modern English music). I am currently working on a book chapter that explores disability and music as narrative devices within seventeenth-century English plays, and I am also in the early research stages of a monograph that explores the intersection of disability, gender, and musical performance in the early modern period. I have new ideas about the intersections of music and disability all the time, and think of new projects frequently. As a disability rights activist, I am an advocate and resource for fellow academics (and anyone else!) with autoimmune diseases and other invisible illnesses. Activism is an important component to disability studies, and I don’t think it is possible (or helpful!) to fully separate oneself from activism when doing scholarship about disability studies. I try to create accessible classes that integrate the wide range of students in them, and “out” myself as a disability rights activist at the beginning of each semester, in order to encourage students to acquire the appropriate accommodations for their disabilities and to ask me for help if they need it. I make sure my syllabi clearly state the name and location of the disability services offices at their university and explain the procedures for acquiring accommodations.

It is important to pursue activist work alongside our academic pursuits in disability studies, especially under the current political climate, but also because of the increased visibility of disability in popular culture. As musicologists and music theorists who conduct disability studies of music, we are responsible to (gently) remind our colleagues of ableism and of the accommodations and respect owed to students, colleagues, and others who are disabled. As an example, a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, written by Charlotte C. Gill, came under fire for insinuating that music notation is too elitist and exclusive. The author writes,

For a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement. While there are routes into musical careers for the untrained, and many pop, rap and grime artists have never studied music formally, there are also dozens of choirs and amateur collectives that put a huge focus on musical notation.”

While many professional musicians and academics objected to this essay by signing a petition and a response in The Guardian, and even started spirited debates with the author on Twitter, there were those of us within the AMS MDSG who recognized a thread of disability throughout the piece. One paragraph struck me plainly as reading like the description of a possible disability:

“The patterns and figures of music don’t easily unravel in my mind. I suspect that’s the case for many other children and adults; some get notation, others don’t. Neither is indicative of talent, but while we do not find lateral, inclusive ways to engage people – as well as loosening our ideas of what constitutes musical ability – we are losing masses of would-be performers.”

Disability studies and activism enable us as academics to occupy two spaces with respect to the issues raised in this article. Not only are we music academics and professionals with an interest in upholding rigorous intellectual exchange within the academy, but we are also responsible for educating about music. An understanding of the accommodations required by different learning disabilities gives educators the tools to craft more accessible classrooms and courses so that no-one is excluded in music education or performance at any level.

The study group aspires to be as inclusive as its discipline, by encouraging the voices of disabled scholars and scholars of disability (and persons who are disabled and also scholars of disability) to participate and contribute their vantage points to the conversation of disability and music. To that end, we hold a CFP for our yearly meetings at the AMS and SMT, and also encourage our members to submit research in progress and posts to the blog.

Since this is my final year as chair of the study group, I defer to my successor, Jessica Holmes, to flesh out her vision for the group. I hope that the group will pursue values of inclusivity and scholarly rigor, that we will remain at the forefront of music and disability research and activism, and be the first port of call for anyone who is interested in pursuing research in music and disability studies. I end with a few suggestions for her and others to consider. Firstly, it would be wonderful to organize a conference on music and disability studies, sponsored by the MDSG, and perhaps integrating colleagues from the Society of Disability Studies, and of course the SMT Interest Group on Music and Disability. We could consult with our colleagues at the AMS Pedagogy Group for ideas on how best to organize the conference. Secondly, since we have had so many successful AMS and SMT study group sessions, it would be great to publish these as special journal issues, colloquia, or collected editions. More of our work needs to be in print or otherwise accessible to larger audiences. Finally, I challenge our group to continue building on our twinned values of activism and scholarship, within the AMS and more broadly within our disciplines of music studies.

Samantha Bassler is the co-chair of the AMS Music and Disability Study Group (AMS MDSG), having served first with Blake Howe from January 2015, then as sole chair from January 2016, and now with Jessica Holmes from January 2017, with her term officially ending in December 2017. Samantha’s first work on music and disability was published in the August 2009 issue of Music Theory Online, for a special issue on chronic illness and disability in music academia. Samantha later published on early modern music practice and disability in the journal postmedieval and in the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, and another article on invisible illness and music in Voices: a World Forum on Music Therapy. Samantha is an adjunct professor at the music departments of NYU Steinhardt, Rutgers University at Newark, and Molloy College.

Introducing Gaelynn Lea

Fellow disability studies-and-music community, meet Gaelynn Lea.* She is a freelance musician, songwriter, and violin teacher who hails from Duluth, MN. She’s recently gained notoriety as the winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, a contest for “intimate video performances recorded at the desk of All Things Considered’s Bob Boilen.” Gaelynn’s submission won out of over 6,000 entries, and has been called “arresting” and “profoundly moving.” Gaelynn’s Tiny Desk concert puts her among the ranks of musicians such as Wilco, Natalie Merchant, Graham Nash, and Ben Folds! Watch here:

As it happens, Gaelynn has brittle bone disease. Because her body is small, she bows her violin like a cello. She uses a loop pedal to multiply her instrumental melodies, creating a rich textural fabric that undulates beneath her ethereal mezzo-soprano. As she explains, a live loop pedal is an ever-precarious choice: “Every time you start song, you could potentially screw the whole thing up.” Gaelynn seemingly had good access to music in public school; after aceing a music listening test in fifth grade, she began playing the violin with an orchestra teacher devoted to making adaptive accommodations. Gaelynn took a serious interest in Irish fiddle tunes in high school, and hasn’t stopped playing since. Now she’s a free-lance music teacher and performer.

In an NPR interview, worth a listen for her biographical and artistic reflections, Gaelynn speaks about the relationship between her disability and her music. Her submission video begins with herself out of the frame, a conscious artistic choice, as Gaelynn explains: “I didn’t necessarily want my disability to be the very first impression people had. It’s not because I’m ashamed of it in any way, but I really wanted my music to be judged.” We hear you, Gaelynn.

*Thanks to David Bashwiner (University of New Mexico) for drawing my attention to Gaelynn’s work.


On Diagnosis and Invisible Illness

The following link is shared with permission from the author, Katherine Meizel, who is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Katherine recently gave a paper at AMS Louisville (2015) on music and deafness, “Two Voices: Singers in the Hearing/ Deaf Borderlands”, and is the author of  Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol. In the article linked below, Katherine writes for Scope, the Stanford medical blog, about her experience obtaining diagnoses of invisible illnesses. Although this is not a musical article, it furthers important work in disability activism, and disability awareness, which are important goals of the Music and Disability Study Group and the Society for Music Theory Interest Group.

“Belief brings relief — and sadness — after decades of doubt”

Guest Post by Jennifer Iverson: Intersections of Disability Studies, Neurodiversity, and Neuroscience

For many of you who have been acquainted with Disability Studies for some time,  it is not a revelation to view people who test “on the spectrum” (that is, on the autism spectrum) as talented, smart, exceptional individuals. I was delighted to read this article recently, “The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism,” by Maia Szalavitz in the web publication Medium. The article describes the research of neuroscientist Henry Markram, who now leads the EU’s Human Brain Project. Markram and his research team induced autism in rats’ brains, and studied how the synapses and cells responded to excitation. His team found that brain cells in autistic-type brains were hyperactive and much more connected than in neuro-typical brains. This research shows that autistic people are extremely smart; in fact, they learn much faster and have many more associations because of their hyper-wired brains. Of course, this can also result in sensory overstimulation and fear responses. Markram terms this the “Intense World Syndrome“.

Markram hypothesizes that what fundamentally characterizes autism is an excess of great synaptic activity, not a lack of social processing networks. Note the fundamental shift here from lack to excess–an important change in attitude that has been well understood in disability studies and neurodiversity communities for some time. I’m thrilled to see neuroscience researchers adopting the perspective of ability rather than the perspective of disability. I think this also demonstrates the way in which our humanities scholarship and personal/professional advocacy has important ramifications, sometimes specific, sometimes diffuse. Would Markram have been able to study and conceptualize autism from the perspectives of hyper-ability and excess, had the path not been slowly but surely cleared by cultural warriors who have been advocating for access, inclusion, and neurodiversity in their own communities?

If this topic is right up your alley, be sure to catch Michael Bakan‘s position paper at AMS/SMT, Saturday November 8, 8-11 p.m. Bakan (Florida State University) shares his work on an ethnographic project involving adult musicians who are on the spectrum. He’ll be joined by respondents Andrew Dell’Antonio (University of Texas at Austin) and Elizabeth J. Grace (National Louis University), who are working on similar research involving autism and music-making.

Guest Post by Meghan Schrader, announcing the newly-formed Society for Disability Studies Interest Group on Disability and Music

Meghan Schrader received her M.A. in Music at the University of New Hampshire, and is the author of an article in the forthcoming collection Anxiety Muted: American Film Music in a Suburban Age, which will be published by Oxford University Press.

I am pleased to announce that the first meeting of the Society for Disability Studies music interest group was held recently at the national Conference of Disability Studies. The group was conceived around the original concept of musicology, described by Joseph Kerman in Contemplating Music, as having ranged “from the history of Western music to the taxonomy of primitive music, as it was then called, from acoustics to aesthetics, and from harmony to counterpoint to piano pedagogy.”

I find this definition is useful for our purposes: scholars in disability studies approach music in a variety of ways. We may be professional musicologists, or we may teach or study fields outside of music, such as English or Philosophy. In contrast to the breadth of methodological approaches to the study of music and disability, music is a distinct discipline with particular genres, history, and cultural practices; which differ from other forms of human expression. Hence, my hope is to provide a forum for SDS attendees to discuss music within a broad musicological framework. I also hope that doing so might foster collaboration with scholars who are affiliated with the AMS and SMT Disability Study Groups, in hopes that our divergent experiences might enrich each other’s scholarship.

By drawing on the increasing body of work related to music and disability, this group will consider the following questions: How can our work best reflect the interdisciplinary nature of disability studies? How does and should such musicology intersect with related fields, such a film studies, sound studies, and identity studies? What is music’s potential to reify or subvert cultural conceptions of disabled people, performers, and composers? What can disability studies contribute to music pedagogy? How might these contributions add to or change 19th century standards of musicianship that currently determine the practice of music? Can the social critique which often accompanies the analysis of narrative music also be applied to interpretations of absolute music? How can the analysis of music be integrated with ethical issues encountered in Disability Studies? What has disability studies to teach musicology, and what does musicology have to contribute to disability studies? How do nuances within disability identity impact our respective experiences as scholars, and particularly within the musicology/disability studies communities?

Our first meeting attracted scholars from a variety of different backgrounds and research interests, including:

  • Presidential campaign music, opera on YouTube, and Freakery
  • Music performance and, deafness in music with a focus on Evelyn Glennie and Christine Sun Kim
  • Film music, particularly horror film soundtracks and film music of the 1950s
  • Elitisim in music education
  • Film music and studies of “The Beast with Five Fingers,” “Pride of Manres,” and Al Schidt and blindness
  • Studies of Porgy and Bess and contemporary music
  • Songwriting/performance with a focus on clinical psychology and metal music

We began the process of organizing one or more interdisciplinary panels for next year, in which we hope to bring these divergent interests together. True to the familial spirit of SDS, we also discussed the possibility of an “open mic night,” in which music scholars could not only meet for discussion, but also perform for each other.

We noted that SDS has had several music panels over the years, but that scholars who frequently attend SDS might be less likely to attend AMS, SAM or SMT meetings. Similarly, frequent participants in the latter conferences rarely attend SDS. Hence, another goal is to establish more frequent interactions and communication between scholars affiliated with these respective organizations. We would like to encourage these scholars to enrich both conferences with their presence and contributions.

Those wishing to participate in a panel should submit their abstracts to Meghan Schrader (meghanschrader at, Jessica Holmes (jessica.holmes at, and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak (dana.gorzelany-mostak at by December 3, 2014. The Society for Disability Studies Music Interest Group also has a Facebook presence.

Guest Post by Jeannette Di Bernardo Jones: “Encountering Deaf Spaces in Washington”

This is another installment of guest blog posts by scholars of music and disability studies. Jeannette Di Bernardo Jones is a graduate student and teaching assistant in musicology at Boston University, and is a contributor to the OUP Handbook on Music and Disability Studies (forthcoming 2014). Her master’s thesis, completed for degree requirements at Louisiana State University, is a study of The University of Pennsylvania MS. Codex 436.

“Mommy, guess what I want to do for my job?” “what?” “It starts with an M.” “music?” “yes, I want to do what that Deaf music guy does.”

My seven-year-old son and I were sitting in a cafe on a cold, rainy evening in February in Washington, D.C. having just come from the Kennedy Center. My son, Ellis, was beaming in the warm afterglow of seeing Signmark for the first time, the Deaf rapper from Finland. As a parent, I’ve taken my kids to concerts before, but this one was different. I was at the Signmark concert as a musicologist, taking notes for my own research, and I brought my son all the way from Boston to see this, because he’s Deaf, too.

In February 2013, Signmark performed at the Kennedy Center, representing Finland as one of the featured performers of the month-long Scandinavian festival at the Center, called “Nordic Cool.” Including Signmark in a cultural festival distances his work as a deaf artist from medical implications of deafness and shifts them more in a political and cultural light, which is consistent with Signmark’s artistic goals.

The audience rippled with the signing hands of Deaf and hearing people, communicating together, or simply waving their hands in applause. Signmark called from the stage, “Rhythm isn’t something we hear, but also see and feel,” as he encouraged the audience to move their hands and bodies along with the music.

Through the performance in a spoken language and a sign language, Signmark creates a musical experience that is accessible to both hearing and Deaf cultures. Signmark works closely with his partner, vocalist Brandon Bauer, who is Finnish-American and who performs the spoken translation of Signmark’s signed raps, to create a bilingual performance. Signmark states, “Through my music I want to break prejudice and fight for equality between cultures. I want to show to people that being different can be an asset. My message is that nothing is impossible for the deaf; we can do all the same things.”

I underestimated how much seeing Signmark would resonate with my seven-year-old. Ellis has a fair amount of auditory access through the use of a cochlear implant (CI), but he also signs. American Sign Language is his first language. During a bilingual concert, he could choose either modality listening with his CI or listening with his eyes. He chose the latter.

As the music started, Ellis took in the first few songs in his seat, but then as he latched on to Signmark’s performance, he became more engaged, waving his arms, and fist-pumping the air along with the music. The show is worked out between Deaf Signmark who signs and his colleague Brandon who speaks. They are well coordinated in the dialogue in-between songs, but sometimes there is some variance between how they are interacting with the audience. Ellis was completely tuned into Signmark. He responded to all the signing, and for the last song, when Signmark invited everyone to the front, Ellis ran up to the front to be closer, joining in, jumping up and down. When it was over, I said we could meet Signmark. My somewhat shy Ellis surprised me. He was frantic to meet him, running and pushing his way ahead to find Signmark. We were rewarded with this sweet picture.


At the age of seven, my son has not yet encountered the prejudice of the hearing world that deaf people can’t or don’t experience, enjoy, and perform music. After his encounter with Signmark, he will know that this is not the case, and he has taken to writing his own songs at home now.

But the Signmark concert was only a part of a journey I took with my Deaf son that weekend. My little Ellis became my Ellis Island, a portal to a world that I would’ve never known about if it weren’t for him, DEAF-WORLD, in ASL. And our trip to Washington, D.C., gave us a physical space for DEAF-WORLD. We stayed in the dorms at Gallaudet University, the only deaf liberal arts university in the world. To get to and from there, we took a special Gallaudet shuttle that runs from Union Station every half hour, which fascinated Ellis, “A Deaf bus!?” And he was eager to make small talk in ASL with every generous college student who made eye contact with him. Later, he remarked, “I think we should move to George Washington, D.C. Everyone is smart here; everyone is signing.”

The next day, I took him to see the monuments. Perhaps the most significant one for me to show him was the Lincoln Memorial. This memorial represents the struggle for minorities to gain equality and social justice in a majority world that would otherwise oppress them. We remember M. L. King, Jr. standing on the steps declaring his dream. But many don’t realize that King’s dream was echoed over twenty years later by the Deaf students in Washington, D.C., who borrowed banners from the civil rights movement to declare their own dream of having a Deaf president for the first time at Gallaudet University—which would symbolize the rejection of nearly two hundred years of paternalism perpetuated by hearing medical and educational professionals.

If you look closely at Abraham Lincoln’s hands, it is said that the sculptor, Daniel Chester French, who had a deaf son, formed the ASL letters “A” and “L” for “Abraham Lincoln.” Standing there with my deaf son, I felt proud that he could say to me just the night before, “I want to do what that Deaf music guy does.” To know that he stands on the shoulders of so many who have advocated for the rights of the deaf. And to know that as a musicologist, I have a role to play.

AL (did you know the statue was carved by a Deaf man?) #lincolnmemorial #washingtondc

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.