With the publication of his book Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music, Joseph Straus makes significant contributions to disability studies and musical criticism. Charting underdeveloped territory, Straus brings socio-cultural perspectives of disability to bear on the critical reception of composers with disability, on practices of listening, and on the historical, cultural narratives present in musical works themselves.

Defining disability as "culturally stigmatized bodily difference" (9), Straus opens the book by explaining the paucity of disability-centric scholarship in music studies and defines his purpose as addressing that lack. The book appeals to musicians and non-musicians alike, and he makes this clear at the onset by offering a glossary of terms to assist readers in understanding various musical concepts. Straus also does well in this opening to qualify his account by explicitly identifying his limited focus on Western music. Although this qualifier is appreciated, Straus neglects to continually acknowledge this limitation throughout the course of the book. As a result, he fails to fully account for the constraints of his argument, and readers are left to wonder why he didn't title the book Disability in Western Music.

Drawing on four models of disability explained in the introduction (disability as affliction, afflatus, defect, or identity), Straus aims to identify the shared experiences of disability among composers as well as the similar strains of critical response (all of which are shaped by listeners' and critics' own historically- and culturally-bound notions of disability). Some of his examples of these shared values among disabled composers include collaboration and interdependence for blind musicians, and visual/kinesthetic relationships to music among deaf composers and deaf listeners. Straus looks to Beethoven and Smetana to demonstrate the predictability of critical reception of composers with disabilities. Both Beethoven and Smetana experienced hearing loss later in their musical careers. Critics examining their later works fall predictably, as Straus notes, into two camps: those who consider the later works as exhibitive of the composer's failing abilities, and those who consider the later works as "new and higher level[s] of creative achievement" (30).

His attempts to identify similar experiences of disability (across time period and nationality) are less compelling than his identification of similar reactions among critics. Though Straus may see great benefit in "binding" composers with disabilities into a community, tracing attitudes toward disability in the critical reception of this music is a far more manageable task than identifying shared experiences of disability among composers. Moreover, his assertion that composers with disability share common experiences across nationality, style, and time period marks a missed opportunity to follow up on his initial (and somewhat perfunctory) qualifier regarding his limited focus on Western music.

Straus declares that "music has the power to tell stories about disability" (45), and he goes on to offer in-depth analyses of various composers with disabilities in chapters two through five. While much of the research in these chapters demonstrates Straus's remarkable expertise in music criticism, the theoretical base is firmly situated in disability studies. Drawing heavily on the work of Lennard Davis, David Mitchell, and Sharon Snyder, these chapters methodically examine the historicity of disability as embedded in musical works, the composers' individual responses to disability, and the various tropes present in audience accounts and critical reception. Straus presents these narratives as "Disability Overcome," "Disability Accommodated," "Balance Lost and Regained," and "the Fractured Body."

While critical analysis of overcoming narratives is common in disability studies scholarship, Straus's discussion of Beethoven is groundbreaking in that he manages to disrupt deeply-held beliefs, desires, and values circulating around the musician and his music. Mitchell and Snyder's work on narrative structure and disability provides the interpretive frame for Straus's analysis of the musical narratives of overcoming present in the works of Beethoven. Straus combines the four stages of disability narratives with Schoenberg's concept of the tonal problem, looking mostly toward Beethoven's symphony No. 3 (first movement) and symphony No. 8 (final movement). The first movement of symphony No. 3, "Eroica," delivers the overcoming narrative in a heroic mode, the triumphant resolution of the tonal problem, while the "Finale" from the eighth symphony presents the overcoming narrative in a comic mode. Straus connects both of these to their counterpart cultural scripts, the heroic overcomer and the comic mis-adventurer, although he spends a great deal more time fully-developing the former.

If Beethoven is understood as both reflecting and constructing the overcoming model for persons with disabilities, Straus discusses Schubert as presenting narratives of accommodation. While Beethoven may offer listeners a sense of "vindication through struggle," Schubert suggests "resigned accommodation…the tonal problem is not overcome, but accepted and accommodated" (67). With both composers, Straus deftly interweaves their music with their individual experiences with disability: Beethoven's experience of going deaf and Schubert's experience with syphilis. Following up on the work of his opening chapter, Straus further layers these complex analyses with an eye toward the metaphors critics have deployed in their responses to the music of both Beethoven and Schubert. Music critics describe the tonal problems in Beethoven's "Eroica" and "Finale" as blockage or obstacle; in Schubert's sonata, the tonal problem is described as a puncture or opening. Straus examines these interpretive tendencies and makes use of them for drawing his own metaphorical connections between the body of a given piece of music and the human body. While this move mirrors much existing music theory, he inflects such analysis with attention to the composer's experience of disability.

Throughout the book, Straus excels at locating and theorizing the historical contexts that give rise to particular musical forms and tendencies, to commonplace critical responses, and to narratives of disability among the composers themselves. One excellent example of this attention to context is present in Straus's examination of atonality in the music of Schoenberg and Webern. While neither composer had direct experience with disability, the war made disability a part of everyday experience. Straus connects this exposure—disability made visible, no longer easily locked away and institutionalized—to the adoption of twelve-tone music by both Schoenberg and Webern. While both explored atonality before and after the war, Straus interprets their post-war emphasis on balance as "an extreme avoidance reaction to the threat of deforming asymmetry and imbalance" made "shockingly real" after the Great War (81).

Straus is truly at his best when he indicts the ableist prejudices of his own field of expertise: music theory. In chapter six, for example, he argues for a reconceptualization of "late style" to "disability style." Rather than accepting the common chronological understanding of late-style compositional characteristics (late-style as in later in life), he argues that these identifiable qualities are better understood as "shared experiences of nonnormative bodily or mental function, impairment, or disability" (83). He looks to four examples of late-style composition to drive this argument: Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles, Schoenberg's String Trio, Bartok's Third Piano Concerto, and Copland's Night Thoughts.

Later in the book, Straus develops the idea of disablist hearing, which he defines as "the ways that people whose bodily, psychological, or cognitive abilities are different from [how] the prevailing norm might make sense of music" (150). After demonstrating that most undergraduate music students are taught to hear "normally," Straus makes his most potent political move by asserting that "It is as wrong to exclude from our studies of music cognition people with physical, cognitive, and psychological differences as it would be to exclude people based on ethnicity or gender" (159). He calls for recognition among teacher-scholars of their own complicity in forwarding music pedagogies grounded in the normal. When music teachers ask students to listen for pitch relationships, to practice hierarchical hearing, to listen individually, and to hear without "permitting audible or kinesthetic response" (157), they propagate normal hearing. Straus provides further nuance for his critique of normal hearing by pointing out that "[the] problem is not so much that music cognition and music pedagogy focus on normal hearing, but rather that they pretend to naturalness and universality" (157). Dividing hearing into either normal or disablist, however, is not his goal. Rather, he hopes that readers "expand the range of hearing available to all of us, normatively embodied or not" (160).

Although Straus discusses a variety of disablist hearing, such as autistic hearing, deaf hearing, mobility-inflected, and blind hearing, he strangely avoids "mad" hearing. This elision may appear inconsequential, but due to the explicit inclusion of madness in his opening structural approach, its omission later is curious. It must be stated, however, that with both of these examples, "disability style" and "disablist hearing," Straus moves beyond making good work of concepts in disability studies and toward contributing innovative interpretive frames for future scholarship in both disability studies and music studies.

This book invites readers to explore countless lines of inquiry which might be taken up in greater depth, with additional composers, with non-Western composition, as well as with media other than music. As a rhetorician, my own reading of his work inspired a number of pedagogical, interpretive, and disability-centric ideas for research and practice. There are, however, some moments of contradiction in the work. At times, for example, Straus paradoxically critiques and participates in diagnoses of the subjects of his research. During his initial examination of Schumann, he notes the connection between medical models of disability and the overwhelming attempts at diagnosing Schumann's "madness." During his subsequent analysis of Aaron Copland's Night Thoughts, however, Straus relies on speculation about Alzheimer's disease in order to forward his own argument about late-style verses disability-style. He practices the same reliance on speculative diagnoses with Thomas Wiggins and Glenn Gould. Though Straus's accounts seem to aim at a "claiming" model, it is slightly worrisome that some (not all) of his analyses draw from characterizations taken not from the individuals themselves but from diagnoses placed upon them by others. That said, another strength of the book is Straus's deliberate inclusion of perspectives from disabled composers, an enormous sampling of which are included in the chapter on "Performing Music and Performing Disability." Because much of Straus's argument traces the shared values among communities of disabled musicians, this inclusion is paramount.

Extraordinary Measures marks the keen interjection of disability studies into the field of music studies and music criticism, and serves as testament to the transformative pressure and power that disability—as both discipline and as subject—evokes. Straus's work asks readers to re-conceptualize what it means to experience, create, and respond to music. Moreover, he models this re-thinking with attention to the historically- and culturally-bound constructions of disability as they manifest in the work of composers, in the critical reception of such work, and in our own embodied experiences of music.

Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2012 Tara K. Wood

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)