Music-making, like other performing arts and performative acts, offers an ideal site for examining the integral relationship between discourses of ability and disability. Its professionalization and commoditization in Western culture and global industry have engendered persistent ideas about extraordinary bodies inscribed with athletically, intellectually, and emotionally extreme "talents." Disabled bodies, when attached to performers, composers, or audience members, are often perceived as doubly, or even contradictorily extraordinary. Beethoven's deafness, Ray Charles' blindness, Ian Curtis' epilepsy—in their multiple historical constructions—may not only have impacted their experiences of music-making, but also the way others experience their work.
The study of music is approached from multiple perspectives, and though disability has long been addressed through the practical lenses of music education and music therapy, scholars in the humanistic music disciplines have only recently begun to seriously engage with the theories and frameworks of disability studies. These include the overlapping but discrete disciplines of musicology (generally, though not always, concerned with the sounds and contexts of Western classical music), ethnomusicology (which combines anthropological and humanistic approaches to musics in cultures throughout the world), and music theory (which has tended to focus on the structures and practices of music). Efforts began in earnest with a panel in 2005 at the American Musicological society, followed by a 2006 volume titled Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music, and then two other influential publications in 2010 (Alex Lubet's Music, Disability, and Society) and 2011 (Joseph Straus' Extraordinary Measures). The Society for Music Theory and the American Musicological Society have included interest groups in disability studies since 2012, and they share a blog at https://musicdisabilitystudies.wordpress.com. The Society for Ethnomusicology established a group for Disability and Deaf Studies in 2015 after some discord regarding the orientation of the Medical Ethnomusicology group (a title that followed the example of a section within the American Anthropological Association). Several of the authors of The Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies have attended conferences of the Society for Disability Studies. The volume provides the emerging inquiry into music and disability with an indispensible collection where the efforts of theorists, musicologists, and ethnomusicologists—and even media scholars— converge.
The book's framework is divided into eight sections of between four and nine chapters each. These sections are centered on "Disability Communities," "Performing Disability," "Race, Gender, and Sexuality," "War and Trauma," "Premodern Conceptions," "The Classical Tradition," "Modernism and After," and "Film and Musical Theater." And, as the editors note, as a whole the volume takes into account four overarching topics: disability as a "core feature of the musical identity" of musicians, particularly composers and performers; the impact of disability on the reception of musicians' work; the representation of disability in music; and the performance of disability in music (pp. 4-5). Additionally, the editors identify seven major themes throughout the essay collection, drawn from significant dialogues in disability studies about normalcy, otherness, enfreakment, commotion (disability's subversive potential), self-representation, performance, and myths of autonomy (pp. 7-8).
Though the chapters devoted to Western classical musical contexts are perhaps best suited for advanced courses within a music department (pioneer Joseph Straus' chapter on "Autism and Postwar Serialism as Neurodiverse Forms of Cultural Modernism"), those entries addressing popular and non-Western musics will also be of great interest to students of pop culture and media ("Punk Rock and Disability: Cripping Subculture," by media-studies scholar and author of Shakin' All Over: Popular Music and Disability George McKay, Ann M. Fox's chapter on feminism and disability in millennial musical theater, titled "Scenes in a New Light," ), historians (Samantha Bassler's "Madness and Music as (Dis)Ability in Early Modern England"), and anthropologists (Jessica Schwartz' chapter on voice and nuclear damage in the Marshall Islands; Brian Hogan's essay on "Tropes of Disability as Spiritual Deviance" in Ghanaian Birifor culture). An essay on the "Ethnomusicology of Autism" by Michael Bakan, a leader in the study of music and disability, will especially be of use to those whose work includes ethnography. Two chapters, by musicologist Jeannette DiBernardo Jones and theorist Anabel Maler, respectively, focus on music and Deaf culture. Jones grounds her study in the diversity of listening practices, and both essays incorporate multiple intersections between music and sign language(s).
As with all such volumes, any gaps in its structure invite future efforts. I hope that readers can look forward to further work that more explicitly approaches music and disability studies from intersectional and global perspectives. (Though intersectional perspectives are present in several segments, the term only appears once in the body of the book's text outside of footnotes; non-Western cultures, though minimally included, are under-represented.)
That said, the Handbook encompasses an impressive assemblage of historical and current musical contexts, artists, and audiences. It is a breakthrough endeavor and opens the door, certainly, for the many scholars now beginning this work. As its editors suggest, it should encourage music scholars to consider cultural concepts of disability, and disability studies scholars to remember the significance of music in experiences of disability. We all have much to teach each other.