This 2014 post by Blake Howe launched the blog Music and Disability at the AMS and SMT, the predecessor to this site. We'll be posting select essays from that blog along with new material.
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.