15 Of The Most Famous Deaf Musicians Or With Hearing Loss

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

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. However, 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 15 of the most famous deaf musicians or those that have some sort of hearing loss. We’ll explore what caused it, when it happened, and how they’re dealing or dealt with it. Read on!

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.

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 toward her wrist.

She says she managed to distinguish the pitch of notes by associating where on her body she feels the sound. Glennie’s mission now is to “teach the world to listen,” to improve communication by encouraging everyone to discover a new way of listening.

Glennie 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.

She led 1,000 drummers in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Glennie’s works has earned her an OBE and over 100 music awards, including two Grammys.

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 also cause other phantom noises such as buzzing, whistling, hissing, roaring, and humming. The sounds are sometimes intermittent, while other times it is constant.

Martin noticed the noise in his ears after two long flights. Perhaps the cabin pressure combined with an ear infection contributed to his tinnitus. Tinnitus is also caused by prolonged exposure to loud sounds, including music.

Specialists had warned Maritin to start protecting his hearing to prevent the condition from worsening, thus he and his band have started wearing specially filtered earplugs or customized in-ear monitors to protect them while performing.

Martin says that the noise distracts him, but he has learned to live with it and accepted that it will never be cured. To help others, Martin has backed the Action on Hearing Loss campaign to warn others about the risks 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. 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.

Aside from 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

Make sure you turn on subtitles to see what he’s saying!

Next on the list is Matt Maxey, who specializes in sign language for rap and hip-hop music. Born with profound hearing loss, Maxey 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.

Maxey’s 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 when he was younger.

However, after he enrolled at a university for deaf students where American Sign Language (ASL) was the primary form of communication, Maxey struggled to fit in. He turned to his passion, music, which he had found easier to understand than voices.

Maxey says he could hear the soul in songs. With music, he could hear emotions, something he never completely understood when interacting with a person.

Like many people with hearing loss, Maxey enjoys hip-hop because of the heavy beats. Eventually, he started to practice signing to the music he enjoyed. In turn, the videos he made of himself signing went viral in the deaf and hearing communities.

In 2017, Maxey 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 hip-hop for 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.”

6. Grimes

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 and all her show dates booked in Europe due to 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

Japanese singer Ayumi Hamasaki is one of the best-selling Japanese solo artists alive, having sold over 60 million records. She is also a record producer, spokesperson, model, entrepreneur, and actress.

The problems with her hearing began in 2000 when she developed an ear infection, but against her doctor’s advice, she continued to perform. He advised her to ease up her exposure to loud noises so that the ear infection could heal.

In 2008, Hamasaki announced that Ménière’s disease had caused complete deafness in her left ear. The disease is a disorder of the inner ear that causes one to suffer episodes of vertigo, tinnitus, and hearing loss.

Nine years later, she wrote that she was also losing hearing in her right ear and had experienced crippling dizziness and nausea. Despite this, Hamasaki seems not to have heeded the numerous warnings for years to avoid loud noises as she has not slowed 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.

However, despite his success, Young has been suffering from tinnitus since the early ’90s. It started in 1991 while he and the band Crazy Horse were creating the live concert album titled Weld. In the process, Young hurt his ears.

His hearing loss changed his creative path. It lead him toward gentler sounds that can heard in his album Harvest Moon because of his sensitivity to loud noises.

Young has also started using in-ear monitors (IEMs) to help deal with the tinnitus. These are specialized earpieces that are fed audio from the sound mixing board while in 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 are known to exceed 120 decibels and often last 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, which he describes as a whee! noise in his head.

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.

10. Sean Forbes

Being profoundly deaf since he was about a year old, Sean Forbes probably didn’t have in mind a career in music. However, being born into a family of musicians (his mom is a pianist, his dad is part of a country rock group), there was no shortage of musical inspiration for him, and he loved it.

Forbes started playing the drums when he was only five, using the vibrations he sensed to create his beats. By the time he was 10, he was playing the guitar and writing his own songs too.

While in a school for the deaf, Forbes began uploading American Sign Language (ASL) music videos. During this time, too, Forbes realized that much of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community had limited access to music. This gave birth to Deaf Professional Arts Network.

A lover of rap and hip-hop, Forbes has also created original songs, like “I’m Deaf” and “Perfect Imperfection.” His music videos feature a mix of signing and phonetic words so even those who don’t know ASL understand the lyrics.

11. Pete Townshend

Well known as the co-founder of the English rock band The Who, Pete Townshend is another example the risks of overexposure to extremely loud music. Yes, this musician has been experiencing hearing loss and tinnitus for the past few decades.

Considering that the Who held the Guinness World Record for loudest concert ever, with a decibel level of 126, this isn’t surprising.

At one point, Townshend was concerned this would end his career. Thankfully, he was introduced to an audiologist who recommendation he use in-ear monitor. Now, at age 77, he continues to rock, but strongly advises other musicians to not follow his example and take care of their ears.

12. Roger Daltrey

If Pete Townshend has hearing issues because of loud music, wouldn’t the other members of the Who be experiencing something similar? In the case of the other co-founder of the band, Roger Daltrey, the answer is yes.

In 2018, Daltrey announced to fans that he was now “very, very deaf.” In order to communicate, he’s learned to lip read, and to follow music while performing live on stage, he uses in-ear monitors.

A lifetime of loud rock music with no ear protection has caused this issue for Daltrey. The now 79-year-old musician also struggles with tinnitus. To continue performing and make music, he’s learned to protect his ears and urges fans to wear ear plugs to gigs to avoid damaging their ears too.

13. Phil Collins

With a career that’s lasted over five decades, it might come as a surprise to learn that Phil Collins is among those who have had to deal with hearing loss. However, unlike the others on this list, the cause of Collins’s loss of hearing in his left ear was due to a viral infection around the turn of the 21st century.

During that time, he started experiencing vertigo, tinnitus, and nausea so much he was forced to stop performing live and touring. After recovering some of his hearing, Collins returned to what he loved and did best: drum and sing for the rock band Genesis.

Though several years has passed, Collins is still sensitive to loud music, and after surgery on his back sometime in 2009, he has been plagued with other health issues that, sadly, has affected the use of his hands.

14. Brian Wilson

Hit on the head with a pipe when he was younger caused singer-songwriter and keyboardist of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, to be partially deaf in his right ear. This affected him in many ways.

One is the way he spoke; Wilson would speak from his left side so he could hear himself better. This often made him look as if he had a stroke. He would also experience tinnitus sometimes, especially when tired or after hearing loud noises.

However, Wilson overcame this in many ways. To communicate better, he’s learned to signal to people which side to speak to. When it came to music, his left ear has helped him be one of the greatest musicians in history, with the Beach Boys and as a solo artist.

15. Eric Clapton

English musician Eric Clapton is known for being the guitarist for the bands Yardbirds and Cream before having an even more successful career as a solo artist.

His career of over 60 years have resulted in 21 studio albums, over 80 singles, and more than 250 million records in sales worldwide. Songs like “Layla,” “Tears in Heaven,” and “Change the World” have won him several Grammy awards, among the many other accolades he’s received from various awarding organizations.

In 2018, however, Clapton announced that he was going deaf and struggling with ringing in the ears. Seventy-two years old at the time, the issue was said to be caused by his age as well as exposure to loud noises.

Recently, he was also diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, which affected his nerves and caused Clapton to feel a sensation similar to an electric shock traveling down his leg. These health issues have made it difficult for the musician to play.

Summing Up Our List Of Deaf or Partially Deaf Musicians

If you try making music without your sense of hearing, you’ll know that it is a challenge. Yet these people we’ve listed overcame this disability.

They found ways to still work around the hearing loss and release music that attracted fans from all over the world. This feat alone marks them as one of the greats.

These musicians also serve as an inspiration for us, as each time they perform or release songs, it tells us that challenges can be overcome if we only have the will and look for a way.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.