Doubtless, music is one of the most important aspects of life. It has the ability to transcend language barriers and unite people from all walks of life. For those who are deaf or have hearing loss, making and enjoying music can be a challenge. But that hasn’t stopped some truly amazing musicians from achieving success in spite of their disabilities.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at some of the most famous deaf musicians or that have some sort of hearing loss. We’ll explore what caused it, when it happened, how they’re dealing with it, or how they dealt with it.
1. Evelyn Glennie
Scottish-born Dame Evelyn Glennie is one of the world’s most acclaimed percussionists, able to use 60 instruments, including the xylophone, marimba and timpani and is profoundly deaf.
She has performed with almost all the major orchestras globally and with several presidents and world leaders in the audience. Besides classical music, she is famous for partnerships with pop and rock artists like Sting and Bjork.
Glennie started going deaf at the age of eight due to nerve deterioration. Her hearing declined to “profound deafness,” meaning that she can’t understand the spoken word from sound alone.
Her percussion teacher at school taught her how to develop her senses to identify the part of her body where she could feel particular notes.
For example, she had to place her hands on a wall, and he would play two notes on two timpani. He would then ask her which was the higher note and where she felt it.
She was able to identify that she could feel the higher note in the upper part of her hand while feeling the lower note down towards her wrist.
She says, “Eventually I managed to distinguish the rough pitch of notes by associating where on my body I felt the sound and with the sense of perfect pitch I had before losing my hearing.”
Glennie’s mission is to “Teach the World to Listen”. She aims to “improve communication and social cohesions by encouraging everyone to discover a new way of listening”.
She led 1000 drummers in the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Glennie was awarded an OBE and has received over 100 international music awards, including two Grammy’s.
2. Chris Martin
Chris Martin is best known as the lead singer, pianist, and co-founder of the rock band Coldplay. With sales of over 100 million worldwide, Coldplay is one of the world’s best-selling groups of all time.
But, while you might know many of their hits, you might not know that Martin suffers from Tinnitus which is a form of hearing loss described as a ringing in the ears.
However, it can cause other phantom noises such as whistling, buzzing, roaring, hissing, and humming. Some sufferers hear the ringing intermittently, while for others, it is constant.
After he’d been on 2 long flights, Martin noticed the noise in his ears. The theory is that something happened to his ears on those plane journeys – perhaps cabin pressure combined with an ear infection.
Tinnitus is also caused by prolonged exposure to loud sounds, including music. Specialists warned him to start protecting his hearing to prevent the condition from worsening.
Martin and his band started wearing specially filtered earplugs or customized in-ear monitors to protect them while performing.
He says that the noise “drives me to distraction but the truth is that I simply live with it and have accepted that it will never be cured. I have grown to understand it.”
Martin has backed a campaign by Action on Hearing Loss about the potential danger of listening to loud music.
3. Mandy Harvey
Singer-songwriter Mandy Harvey gained international attention and inspired Americans in 2017 when she competed in “America’s Got Talent”, singing an original song.
She received the much-coveted Simon Cowel Golden Buzzer, enabling her to go straight to the final rounds of the competition. She’s made four albums and released multiple singles.
Harvey’s singing talent was recognized when she was in high school. She went to university majoring in vocal music education, training for the career of her dreams.
Her hearing problems had started in childhood, and she gradually lost her hearing as a result of a connective tissue disorder, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. At age 18, her world fell silent.
The adjustment to her new reality was tough and she became deeply depressed and gave up music. But thankfully, her father’s encouragement and visual tuners to help her find the correct pitch led her back to music.
These tuners would turn red to indicate when she was slightly off-pitch, and Harvey would have to adjust her singing until she hit the right note and the tuner turned green.
As well as performing, Harvey is also a motivational speaker and an ambassador for nonprofit organizations No Barriers and Invisible Disability.
She has written two books, co-authoring Sensing the Rhythm: Finding My Voice in a World Without Sound, and more recently, a children’s book.
4. Matt Maxey
Next on the list is Matt Maxey who specializes in sign language for rap and hip hop music.
Maxey was born with “profound” hearing loss, meaning he couldn’t hear sounds quieter than about 90 decibels. Ordinary conversation tends to be at about 60 decibels. So a person with a “profound” hearing loss will not hear any speech but can hear louder sounds.
His mother and doctor provided hearing aids and speech therapy while he was growing up, so there was no need for him to learn sign language.
However, after he enrolled at a university for deaf students where American Sign Language (ASL) was the primary form of communication, he struggled to fit in and was made to feel inferior. So he turned to his passion, music, which he had found easier to understand than voices.
Maxey says he could hear the “soul” in songs. “You can hear the pain, the joy. That’s something that I never completely understood communicating and interacting with a person.”
Like many people with hearing loss, Maxey enjoyed hip-hop “because of the bass, the beats and being hip”. He started to practice signing to the music he was enjoying.
The videos he made of himself signing went viral in the deaf and hearing communities.
He says, “Some deaf people have never experienced music in a way that they can understand. We’re bringing music to them in a way that is more visually stimulating.”
In 2017 he went on tour with Grammy-winning musician Chance the Rapper, signing for him at his concerts. He has been described as a pioneer in the genre and in interpreting the music in new ways.
5. Ludwig Van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven’s deafness is possibly the best-known disability of any composer in history. It has become part of the legend surrounding the man and his music.
As our understanding of the disability has expanded and evolved, revisionists believe that much about Beethoven’s response to his deafness has been misinterpreted.
Even though countless diagnoses have been offered for the cause of his deafness, there is still not a clear consensus about this or even about when it began.
It seems that from about 26, he suffered from an intermittent, progressive hearing loss. He began to have difficulty hearing in his left ear and struggled to hear words and the higher-pitched tones of instruments.
Contemporaries reported that Beethoven used a range of brilliant tricks and technologies to deal with his hearing loss.
Initially, he would learn to distinguish notes by feeling the top of a piano; later, he used acoustic hearing aids such as ear trumpets. He also had an amplifier, the “hearing machine” built for his piano.
It has been claimed that he was “stone deaf” in his mid-thirties when he composed the Fifth Symphony. However, there is a report of him when he was nearly 50, using an ear trumpet while listening to his nephew playing the piano and correcting his mistakes.
So perhaps our image of the composer isolated in his deafness, working out music in his mind, is incorrect.
As Freya Parr, the BBC Music Magazine’s Digital Editor and Staff Writer, concludes: “Beethoven did not ‘triumph over deafness. He learned to work with it and around it.”
Claire Boucher, known professionally as Grimes, is a Canadian musician, singer, songwriter and record producer. She has received numerous nominations and awards, such as the Electronic Album of the Year at the Juno Awards of 2013.
In 2012 she canceled several Canadian performances plus all her show dates booked in Europe due to her hearing problems.
She suffers from Tinnitus and has tweeted that sometimes the ringing in her ears is so loud that she can’t sleep.
She tweeted, “I’m having hearing problems and I’m supposed to limit my exposure to loud noise as long as possible.”
She revealed that she suffered hearing loss from attending concerts. During a concert by Animal Collective, she recalls: “I suffered permanent hearing loss from that show! I was high on drugs and pressed my ears on the speakers and so the next day, I couldn’t hear for nearly two days, and I get a really sharp pain in my ears now.”
7. Ayumi Hamasaki
Ayumi Hamasaki, the Japanese singer, has sold over 60 million records, making her the best-selling Japanese solo artist of all time. She is also a record producer, actress, model, spokesperson and entrepreneur.
The problems with her hearing began in 2000 when she developed an ear infection but continued to perform against her doctor’s advice. He warned that she needed to ease up her exposure to loud noises so that her ear infection could heal.
In 2008, Hamasaki announced that Meniere’s disease had caused complete deafness in her left ear. Ménière’s disease is a disorder of the inner ear which causes one to suffer episodes of vertigo, Tinnitus, and hearing loss.
In 2017, she wrote that she was also losing hearing in her right ear and had experienced crippling dizziness and nausea.
“I wasn’t able to walk in a straight line, and was often reduced to vomiting in the restroom at the rehearsal studio… I just remember wondering how I, as a singer, would cope with two useless ears. Other than that, I was in darkness.”
Hamasaki seems not to have heeded the numerous warnings for years to avoid loud noises and slow down her touring schedule.
8. Neil Young
The celebrated Canadian-American singer-songwriter, musician, and activist Neil Young launched his music career in Canada in the 1960s.
He has released many critically acclaimed albums and has received several Grammy and Juno awards with The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducting him twice.
But despite his success, Young has been suffering from Tinnitus since the early 90s. It started in 1991 after he and the band Crazy Horse released a live concert album titled Weld.
While mixing the album, Young said it affected his hearing. “That’s why I really regret it,” he said. “I hurt my ears, and they’ll never be the same again.”
His hearing loss changed his creative path towards the gentler sounds heard in his album Harvest Moon.
“I made Harvest Moon because I didn’t want to hear any loud sounds. I still have a little bit of Tinnitus, but fortunately now I’m not as sensitive to loud sounds as I was for a year after the mixing of Weld,” he said. “My hearing’s not perfect, but it’s OK.”
Young also started to use in-ear monitors (IEMs) to deal with his Tinnitus.
They are specialized earpieces that are fed audio via the sound mixing board at concerts or in the studio.
9. Ozzy Osbourne
John “Ozzy” Osbourne has had a long, successful, and eventful career as an English singer, songwriter, and television personality.
He became a star in the 1970s as the lead vocalist of the heavy metal band Black Sabbath.
Osbourne’s rock concerts exceeded 120 decibels and lasted over two hours. Compare that to everyday conversation, which is at about 60 decibels. A safe noise level is at 70 decibels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Without any hearing protection, Osbourne was exposed to excessively high noise levels. As a result, he suffers from Tinnitus and partial deafness.
“It’s like this Whee!! noise in my head all the time.”
Osbourne now advocates for people to experience music “responsibly”. He speaks out about his own experiences and has raised funds for the Starkey Hearing Foundation.