Music and Disability Studies

If you have never heard of disability studies, you might be interested to know that not only there is a field with that name, but that for the last ten years or so, there has been interdisciplinary work done at the cross-roads of music and disability studies.

Read an interview with Joe Straus, a music theorist (who happens to be my Ph.D. advisor) who has been instrumental in developing this interdisciplinary endeavor:


One thought on “Music and Disability Studies

  1. In interdisciplinary studies, one area of study can enrich and provide insights to another. This seems to be the case with disability and music, and I find the mutual enhancement of studies in this particular intersection fascinating! As well illustrated by Joe Straus, assessments of the nature of music and what constitutes disability are based on cultural perceptions and norms, and thus both reflect social relativity. Some individuals may prefer a strong, distinct rhythm with a fast tempo, whereas others might resonate with a slow, subtle beat. Likewise, some people are more visually oriented, whereas others rely more on auditory cues. Even in cases of those who are deaf, such as Beethoven, Straus stresses that we should understand how such distinctive perception influences life rather than viewing it as pathology or in any perjorative sense. Of course, in the case of Beethoven, his lack of hearing seems to have contributed to his iconic achievements. So an understanding of social relativity in music can provide insights into similar cultural variability and stereotyping in the area of disabilities. Although addressed but not answered in the interview, I would be interested in learning how the author’s new ways of approaching music helped his relationship with his son and likewise how his son impacted his ways of perceiving music.

    I think that pathology and social understanding and tolerance do not, though, need to be mutually exclusive or contradictory, either in the fields of music or disabilities. For instance, excessively loud, monotonous music may be distressing for most people, even though a small minority may prefer such tones. If someone suffers from constant ringing in the ears, this condition would seem to qualify as pathology. Similarly, notwithstanding the author’s obviously commendable relationship with his autistic son, many children with autism and learning disabilities benefit from medical intervention to assist them, for example, in focusing more effectively. Without such treatment, some would undoubtably fail in school. Understanding and appreciating the unique ways that someone with attention deficit disorder experiences the world does not preclude helping that individual with aspects of the condition that interfere with him/her reaching personal goals. Likewise, treating individuals with severe hearing impairments would in general be expected to enhance rather than impair their ability to appreciate music in particular and function in general. Of course, meddling with Beethoven’s auditory status might have lost us the Fifth Symphony.

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