Stack of books
Stack of books with different-coloured spines.

In contemporary musicology, discussions about difference have generally referred to the representation of the more commonly visited categories of gender (as famously explored by Susan McClary, Catherine Clément and Mary Ann Smart) and race (for example, see Blackness in Opera and Opera in a Multicultural World. The role of disability has seen less critical attention, but nevertheless, revisionist discussions of disability in the field of musicology reflect a vibrant and growing sub-discipline.

The first steps towards bringing disability studies into the field of musicology were taken in 2006 with the publication of Joseph Straus’s article ‘Normalizing the Abnormal: Disability in Music and Music Theory’ and the volume Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music, which was co-edited by Straus and Neil Lerner. These works marked the first stages in the development of music and disability studies (a sub-discipline incorporating the central premises of disability studies into the established practices and methods of music theory and historical musicology). In 2011, Straus’s Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music ­arguably marked the point of arrival for disability studies in musicology. In this work, Straus asserts the fundamental message that disability is a social and cultural construction, surveying the impact of disability on composers, performers and listeners and charting musical representations of disability and their reception.

The publication of The Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies in 2015 represented a significant stride in addressing the fact that music has been largely overlooked in scholarship on disability and the arts. The essays in this volume incorporate ideas about disability and performance, disability as a feature of musical identity (composers and performers with disabilities), disability and music education and representations of physical and cognitive impairment in musical works.

Much of this existing literature on music and disability studies reveals the presence of two distinct perspectives or approaches. The first takes a sociological or ethnographical approach, exploring the way in which composers and musicians may have identified as disabled and how disability may have impacted upon the creation and reception of their music. Straus’s chapter ‘Composers with Disabilities and the Critical Reception of their Music’ in Extraordinary Measures provides an example of this approach, along with essays from the ‘Disability Communities’ and ‘Performing Disability’ sections of the Oxford Handbook.

The second perspective places special emphasis on the representation of disability in musical works. Blake Howe and Stephanie Jensen-Moulton summarise in this article that disability is often presented as a deviation from musical convention. Scholars who have adopted this hermeneutic methodology often emphasise cultural context and consider the role of supplemental material in musical representations of disability, including (but not exclusively) composer biographies, programmatic texts, librettos, aspects of performativity (such as costuming and dance) and song lyrics.

Albeit an ample starting point for the evolving discipline of music and disability studies, the scope of the work I’ve covered today is by no means indicative of the diverse possibilities offered by considering music from a disability studies perspective. One of the stated aims of the Oxford Handbook is to ‘address an important lacuna within a Disability Studies that has mostly overlooked (or underheard) the musical arts as a medium through which disability has and continues to be constructed’. These recent contributions have certainly begun to address this lacuna, but interdisciplinarity between music and disability studies remains in its infancy, and there remain several largely overlooked areas of enquiry, including opera.

I’ll be looking at this in more detail again, but in the meantime, you can explore more literature on music and disability in the opera and disability bibliography and in the AMS/SMT bibliography.

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