Term Paper: Amazing Contributions of Blind Musicians

Pages: 5 (1655 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Music  ·  Buy This Paper

Amazing Contributions of Blind Musicians to Music

Of the five senses, sight is perhaps the most valued of all by many people. In many cases, when a person is deprived of this important sense, the other senses tend to try to compensate for the loss by becoming more sensitive. It is not surprising, then, that some blind people seek vocations that use their other senses to their maximum advantage. In this regard, there have been a number of accomplished blind musicians over the years that have made important contributions to music, but it is important to distinguish between musical prodigies and musical savants in this analysis. To this end, this paper provides a review of the relevant and peer-reviewed literature to identify the amazing contributions of blind musicians to music, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview.

Many young people who suffer from blindness enjoy performing with musical instruments or singing, and there is even a specially designed computer program available that can help them write music that sighted musicians can play (Goldstein, 1998). Not surprisingly, some of these blind musicians go on to pursue professional careers. Young people who demonstrate exception abilities in music, though, can be regarded as either musical prodigies or musical savants. Many of the gifted musicians who have been blind over the years were musical savants; in fact, being blind may be an important component in the evolution of these musical abilities. According to Winner (1996), "Unlike normally gifted musicians, savant musicians are often born prematurely and are blind. Their blindness is usually the result of a disease called retrolental fibroplasia, a condition caused by the administration of high doses of oxygen to premature infants [which can cause blindness]. The recurring triad of blindness, retardation, and musicality may be a clue to the biological basis of savantism" (p. 134). A famous example of a blind but mentally retarded piano savant was Blind Tom; Blind Tom was a slave child who could play any piece of music performed on the piano, with all the accents and rhythm correct, after having heard it only once, by the age of 4 years (Winner, 1996). This savant ability was first discerned by a new owner, Colonel Bethune, who had purchased Tom. According to this biographer, "Bethune heard piano playing late at night and went down to investigate, where he found the four-year-old Tom playing without mistake a Mozart sonata that he had heard the Bethune daughters practicing" (Winner, 1996, p. 134). In fact, this young, disadvantaged savant had never received any formal instruction in music at all; however, he was able to perfectly reproduce any musical piece he had heard only once and by age 11 years, Blind Tom was tested and was found to be able to play back even 20-page compositions that he had just heard one time (Winner, 1996).

By the time he reached his majority, Blind Tom possessed a repertoire of hundreds of pieces, all contained in his memory alone. In would appear, that in this individual's case, the inability to see also accentuated his other auditory abilities: "Tom's memory extended to other auditory information besides music: he could repeat without error conversations of up to fifteen minutes that he had overheard. He could also sing back songs in French or German (which, of course, he could not understand) after only one hearing" (Winner, 1996, p. 134). While musical savants may be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to musical genius, there are some well-known examples of blind musical prodigies as well but these musicians have not received as much attention. According to Haroutounian (2000), musical prodigies in general typically reach an advanced stage of development quickly and are capable of pursuing professional careers at an early age; however, some musical prodigies tend to experience a sort of "mid-life crisis" when they reached adolescence: "What happens to the bird who sings and doesn't know how it sings? That's what happens to child prodigies. They wake up and ask themselves dangerous questions about how they do it -- and they have no answers" (Haroutounian, 2000, p. 3). Furthermore, Goldstein (1998) reports that most traditional colleges and universities are ill-prepared to address the special needs of musical prodigies in general and blind students in particular, so it is a wonder that there are any professional blind musicians at all, but some persevere and these individuals are discussed further below.

Contributions of Blind Musicians.

The important role of blind musicians in shaping important music forms such as the blues language has not received much attention to date; however, the subject has not been totally ignored. According to Monge (2000), "The first popular emergence of the image of a blind street performer of blues appears in William Christopher Handy's 'Beale Street Blues,' which refers to 'the blind man on the corner who sings the 'Beale Street Blues'" (p. 35). This author adds that this "archetypal image" dates back to 1916, a period when the young Blind Lemon Jefferson where professional recording was still in his future but when he was becoming more accomplished playing as an itinerant musician (Monge, 2000). Likewise, Witek (1988) considered the theme of blindness in the blues, characterizing blindness as "a rhetorical trope for 'otherness'" (p. 177 cited in Monge, 2000 at p. 36). It is this sense of "otherness," then, that helps to illustrate how blind musicians may be viewed by a majority of modern Americans. For example, according to Witek:

The blindness myth comes in two main forms. The best-known image is that of the blind genius, doomed and gifted by fate to trade his eyesight in return for his artistic talent.... The other, mostly negative image is that of the suffering blues singer begging with a tin cup. This formulation casts blindness as the mark of a cruel fate which caps the singer's degradation and alienates him from his community (emphasis added). (cited in Monge, 2000 at p. 36)

Following an assessment of how these two views have influenced popular thought, Witek concludes that, "If... Blind Lemon Jefferson is 'almost the archetype of all bluesmen'..., then the fact of the singer's blindness must come close to the bone of the way American culture regards blues music" (cited in Monge, 2000 at p. 36).

While all blind musicians are not black, of course (just as all of them are not savants or even good for that matter), this connection has nevertheless been reinforced in substantive ways over the years by the prominence of performers such as Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. The contributions of these two blind musicians are legend, but in truth they extend far beyond their musical genre.

For example, according to Cooper (1991), it was not uncommon for Stevie Wonder to express social commentary and criticism in his lyrics and his hit recording "You Haven't Done Nothing'" (1974) was credited with swaying popular opinion concerning Watergate, ultimately resulting in the resignation of President Nixon. Furthermore, Wonder is cited by Ward (1998) as a conspicuous exception among the black artists of the early Civil Rights Movement as being not afraid to "rock the boat" and speak out on the issue of racism. Based on his interview with Julian Bond, Ward reports most recording studios were more concerned with their bottom line than in addressing pressing social issues, but Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were two exceptions: "The whites and the handful of blacks in positions of real power within the music business usually proved more concerned with market penetration than political mobilization. [However] Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were just trying really hard. They were the two I remember specifically who indicated over and over again they wanted to do something with us. They wanted to help us somehow"… [END OF PREVIEW]

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