Many famous deaf singers and musicians suffer from some form of tinnitus, as do some of the general population. However, this incapacitating condition isn’t the only hearing-related battle that singers and artistes have engaged in.
Musical history is scattered with such composers, vocalists and instrumentalists.
So, here’s looking at how they not only overcame their hearing loss, but how many managed to make something unique in the process.
NOTABLE DEAF MUSICIANS WHO CONTRIBUTED TO MUSIC
First, we’ll take a look at some musicians who suffered from hearing issues and continued to pursue a career in music anyway.
Not only did they refuse to pick another passion, but they paved the way for others to ignore their deafness and fall in love with music too.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Ludwig Van Beethoven (1870). Credit: Popular Graphic Arts/Wikimedia Commons
If there was a crown for deaf musicians, it would probably be Ludwig Van Beethoven’s, for being the most famously deaf of the bunch.
Although he was never as deaf – or deaf for as long as the legend claims, not letting his failing hearing stop him was part of Beethoven’s legacy.
From the age of 26, the hearing in Beethoven’s left ear began to noticeably decline. He struggled with words and high-pitched tones of instruments.
Beethoven compensated by placing his hands atop his piano and feeling the vibrations, as well as using an ear trumpet.
When percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie was just eight years old, she began to lose her hearing.
Glennie and her doctors did what they could to preserve her ability to hear, but she was deaf by the time she was 12.
The Grammy Award-winning, internationally-recognised legend performs barefoot on stage and in the studio. She even published an essay and delivered a TED Talk explaining how she taught herself to hear with different parts of her body.
Sean Forbes (2015). Credit: Jeffrey Sauger/Wikimedia Commons
Sean Forbes lost his hearing at the age of one to a suspected case of spinal meningitis when he was a few months old.
However, both of his parents were musicians, so it was inevitable that the music’s vibrations would pique Forbes’s interest in playing the drums, guitar and bass.
As well as several full studio albums, Forbes also made American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation music videos for songs by John Mayer, Imagine Dragons, Eminem and many others.
Matt Maxey is another deaf musician who is proficient in ASL and incorporates it into his work when making music videos.
Maxey was born with “profound” hearing loss, specifically being unable to hear sounds below 95 decibels. This includes average conversations at 60 decibels.
Although he was given hearing aids to compensate, he eventually learned ASL when attending a university for deaf students.
Maxey toured with and provided live signing for Chance the Rapper, and he also appeared in the documentary Sign The Show: Deaf Culture, Access & Entertainment.
FAMOUS DEAF SINGERS NOT GIVING UP
Here are some famous singers who are deaf or partially deaf, as well as the trials they endure to continue to entertain audiences around the world.
Chris Martin has enjoyed huge success as Coldplay’s frontman since 1996, but not many people know that he’s actually hearing impaired.
Martin suffers from tinnitus, which he said was slightly present as a child, but it’s gotten much worse since then.
Years ago, Martin had been on two long plane flights, and afterwards, he noticed his hearing had changed significantly. His tinnitus intensified worse than ever before, and air pressure combined with an ear infection was likely to blame.
Now a father, Martin is a loud advocate of weaning ear protection at gigs.
American jazz and pop singer-songwriter Mandy Harvey became profoundly deaf in both ears at the age of 18. She’d suffered from a connective tissue disease called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome since she was a child, and several surgeries weren’t enough to save her hearing.
Following a period of depression and giving up on music, Harvey utilised visual tuners which helped her readjust and remember how to sing. She first became a household name thanks to earning Simon Cowell’s approval on the 12th season of America’s Got Talent.
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys in West Los Angeles (1990). Credit: Ithaka Darin Pappas/Wikimedia Commons
The co-founder of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, was diagnosed with nerve impingement of his right ear when he was 11 years old. The cause was never confirmed, and it was suggested that it was due to being hit by a neighbourhood boy, or his father.
He was also plagued by a persistent ringing in the same ear.
Wilson began to speak out of the side of his mouth because of this, and many people were given the false impression that he’d actually suffered from a stroke.
In the 1960s, Wilson had unsuccessful surgery to fix his hearing.
“Empress of J-Pop” Ayumi Hamasaki broke the hearts of many of her fans in 2008 with the news that she'd gone completely deaf in her left ear.
Hamasaki was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease in 2006, and she didn’t want that, or the dizziness and nausea that came with it, to get in the way of her singing career.
Despite the condition making her physically ill, Hamasaki vowed to continue performing “as a professional”, and that she wanted to “deliver the best performance for everyone”.
She announced in 2017 that her right ear had started to weaken too, but added, “The stage is where I belong. It's the only place I really, truly exist. I don't know anything else.”
MUSICIANS WHO LOST THEIR HEARING DUE TO MUSIC
Tinnitus is the most common culprit for musicians losing their hearing.
Sadly, many instances of this involved the individual themselves turning that volume dial all the way to eleven too often, and for too long.
Ozzy Osbourne at the 2011 Azkena Rock Festival. Credit: Alberto Cabello/Wikimedia Commons
Born and bred in Birmingham, England, metal-head Ozzy Osbourne is known for performing under his own name, and of course, for being the frontman of the heavy metal band Black Sabbath.
Osbourne and his family were also the subjects of a reality television show The Osbournes, where his mild hearing loss was evident on a regular basis.
Osbourne joined Black Sabbath in late 1967, and since then, every part of his body has taken a beating.
“The Godfather of Metal” earned a reputation for being full of most drugs imaginable, and no matter where he went, everything was at full volume for extended periods of time.
With decades of deafening decibels surrounding him, there’s no wonder Osbourne’s eardrums went into retirement years ago.
Grimes (2011). Credit: Phillip Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons
Claire Boucher, known better by her stage name Grimes, is a Canadian musician, singer, songwriter and record producer.
Active since 2007, she rose to prominence in 2012 with her third album, Visions. The success of this record was highlighted when it won the “Electronic Album of the Year” award at the 2013 Juno Awards.
Unfortunately, she had to disappoint fans and cancel a few dates on her 2012 tour due to problems with her hearing.
Grimes was only 24 years old at the time and was frank about how her tinnitus was so severe that she couldn’t even sleep.
Grimes tweeted the bad news: “It's depressing to cancel more shows, but we have to cancel all Grimes dates in Europe due to health issues.
“I’m having hearing problems and I’m supposed to limit my exposure to loud noise for as long as possible.”
Moby (2009). Credit: Michiel Van Balen/Wikimedia Commons
Before he was making chilled-out electronic music, Moby damaged his hearing to the point of taking action.
Not one to keep good advice to himself, Moby has been outspoken about how easy it is to leave yourself vulnerable to injury when working with music professionally, and when enjoying it in your spare time.
Moby admitted: “When I first started playing in bands, I never wore hearing protection, and we played as loud as we possibly could. One night, I came home from a punk rock show and my ears were ringing, as they often did. And they were still ringing the next day. And the next.
“Ever since then, I’ve always worn some sort of hearing protection when exposed to very loud music because I realised that once my hearing is gone, it will never return.”
Pete Townshend performing with The Who in Philadelphia (2008). Credit: Kubackeck/Wikimedia Commons
The co-founder of The Who, Pete Townshend, has suffered from tinnitus and partial deafness since the 1990s.
More than likely, this was caused by Townshend’s extended exposure to loud music while touring and recording with The Who.
Even the Guinness Book of Records listed one of the band’s 1976 gigs as “The Loudest Concert Ever”, which was measured at blasting 126 decibels 32 metres from the stage. This accolade stood for almost a decade.
Townshend’s method of combating this excruciating condition was simple, he began using in-ear monitors while playing with The Who, and making softer music on the side.
He once stated: “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. My hearing’s not perfect, but it’s OK.”
KT Tunstall at Aarhus Festival 2013. Credit: Hreinn Gudlaugsson/Wikimedia Commons
In recent years, Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall has been incredibly vocal about warning people to look after their hearing.
In 2018, Tunstall announced that she was completely deaf in her left ear due to tinnitus and SSHL, sudden sensorineural hearing loss.
As well as warning her followers on Twitter, KT told ILoveBelfast about her regrets: “I’d never been particularly careful about my hearing over the years, especially as a clubber through my 20s and cranking the volume up on bad monitors at my early gigs.”
Lars Ulrich of Metallica performing live at O2 in London (2008). Credit: Kreepin Deth/Wikimedia Commons
Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich co-founded the band in 1981. He blames an ear-throbbingly loud 1988 tour as the cause to which he eventually developed tinnitus and hearing loss. His partial deafness even got worse over the decades.
Although it didn’t put him off being in one of the loudest bands in the world, he eventually took ear safety seriously.
Lars explained how disruptive the condition is, saying, “I would often fall asleep with the television on, and I would wake up in the middle of the night to go turn it off. Except it wasn’t actually on.
“When I realised that I was doing that frequently, actually getting up to turn the TV off that wasn’t on to begin with, I realised that maybe I had some issues.”
COMPOSING GREAT MUSIC AS A DEAF PERSON
There isn’t a sole method that deaf musicians use to compose their own unique sound, nor do they all interpret the sound in the exact same manner.
While Beethoven placed his hands on his piano, Glennie used her bare feet to feel the vibrations on the stage and studio floor.
She also gave talks on how different body parts could “hear” sounds differently.
This means that deaf people who “listen” to music perceive it in a manner very unfamiliar to those with no hearing deficiency. However, the joy of music is that we can all appreciate it, whether we’re enjoying (or composing) it with our ears, hands, or our feet.
Cover Credit: Chris Martin at the Global Citizen Festival 2017 in Hamburg. Credit: Frank Schwichtenberg/Wikimedia Commons
For more articles like this, read:
Elevate the way you listen to music with KEF
Writer | DB Damage
DB Damage is a freelance content writer passionate about creative subjects like music, film, and video games. He studied IT and music technology at college and has a background in managing and promoting local bands.