To mark Hearing Awareness Week, I thought I’d explore how people with hearing loss still experience, enjoy, perform and compose music and song.
One present day composer who lives with hearing loss is Richard Ayres. I first came across Ayres’ music in 2020 when he opened a BBC Proms concert with a work exploring his own experience of hearing loss, interwoven wit hthe experiences of Beethoven all thos eyears earlier. Born in 1965, Richard Ayres graduated from Huddersfield Polytechnic in composition, electronic music and trombone before moving to the Netherlands to pursue postgraduate work. He has composed widely, pieces like his Noncerto for horn and Noncerto for trumpet and his album In The Alps, and has also taught music.
The name which comes most obviously to mind when you think about musicians with hearing loss is of course Evelyn Glennie, the world-famous percussionist. At about the time she began to learn timpani and percussion, at the age of 12, Evelyn also began gradually to lose her hearing. Eventually the loss was total. And yet Evelyn has gone on to play and record across the world, and has brought percussion to a far wider audience.
And it’s clearly not just famous musicians and composers who can experience and produce music although they are deaf. People with hearing loss can feel rhythm and beat through vibration. Sign language and Makaton enable people to sign and sing along to songs, and there are Makaton choirs which perform different musical genres. Subtitles, transcribing and signed performances allow people to enjoy watching musicals, opera or concerts. Some people with only partial hearing loss can hear music more easily than the spoken word, and sometimes music can help people who have tinnitus.
Whether acquired or lifelong, hearing loss is known to lead to anxiety and/or depression for many people. It can be deeply isolating, limiting opportunities to interact easily and naturally with others. It can make people agoraphobic, as staying indoors simply seems easier. You might think that music would be one door firmly closed to people with hearing loss, but not so.
It could seem such a contradiction that one of the most famous composers of all time should also be known for his hearing loss – and that he composed some of his most famous works while deaf. For many, this only highlights Ludwig van Beethoven’s genius and makes his music all the more memorable. In no way was Beethoven’s music overshadowed by his hearing loss, but that is not to say that it was an easy experience for him. As his hearing declined, he searched high and low for ways to treat his hearing, and struggled to see a way ahead, experiencing deep depression. He persevered, and most of his middle and late compositions were created while living with little or no hearing – pieces such as six of his nine symphonies. There could be no greater proof that music is not a closed door to people with hearing loss.
Do you have experience of music and hearing loss? Or do you like the music of Beethoven, Ayres or Glennie? It would be great to hear any responses in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002