Whether it’s writing a song or learning how to read music, becoming a serious musician comes with its fair share of hardship and challenges, already. Everything — from the time and patience it takes to build up your chops on a new instrument, to coughing up enough cash to purchase equipment — is a pain. But what some serious musicians have had to overcome just for the opportunity to work on musical projects is both staggering and inspiring.
Not only have these artists had to tackle the everyday challenges of the average musician, they’ve done it facing discrimination and difficulties beyond imagination, and gone on to produce some of the greatest achievements in music history. Today we’re honoring five musical geniuses who overcame disabilities, and hopefully, it’ll enable all of us to appreciate their music even more.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ok, we all know who Beethoven was and that he went deaf in the prime of his career, but have you ever seriously considered just how devastating and horrific it would be to slowly lose your hearing as a musician — especially as you’re entering the most creative, inspired years of your life?
Historians aren’t quite sure why the massively important composer lost his hearing, but everything from his unusual habit of dunking his head in cold water to stave off fatigue to typhus have been named as possible culprits.
What we do know for sure is that nearly two centuries after his death, Beethoven’s legacy is as revered as ever. The Austrian composer helped usher in the Romantic era in Western music and is largely seen as one of the first independent musical artists, because he wasn’t employed by any palace or court (though he did rely on patrons’ financial support).
Born Stevland Hardaway Judkins, Stevie Wonder has enjoyed one of the most successful and storied careers in music, despite being blind since birth. He signed his first record deal at just 11 years old. He’s recorded more than 30 U.S. top ten hits. And he’s received 25 Grammy awards, in addition to selling over 100 million albums throughout his career.
As if all that weren’t enough, the pop star is also an outspoken political activist and was an integral part of the 1980 campaign to have Martin Luther King Jr. recognized with an American holiday. Oh, and he’s a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Way to go, Stevie. I feel lazy as heck right now.
Kudos go out to all of the other blind musicians who helped pioneer popular music from the blues to jazz and R&B, and opera to rock ‘n’ roll, including Ray Charles, Blind Gary Davis, Lemon Jefferson, Willie Johnson, Andrea Bocelli, Moondog, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and so many others!
Our next musical genius found a way to turn his disability into a unique musical advantage. Romani Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt is considered to be the most important European jazz musician and one of the greatest musical figures of all time. When he was 17, Reinhardt severely burned his left hand in a fire and subsequently lost control of two of his fingers.
Doctors said he’d never play guitar again, but with only the use of his thumb and two fingers, Reinhardt went on to forge the “hot” or “gypsy jazz” guitar style, also known as “jazz manouche,” a method of guitar playing hallmarked by major and minor seventh barre chords, swung rhythms, and a nuanced and chromatic approach to lead playing.
While listening to Pet Sounds, it’s easy to recognize that Brian Wilson was touched by a brilliance that few musicians are ever lucky enough to experience. But while creating some of the world’s most impactful music (and for most of his life), the Beach Boys co-founder and revered songwriter grappled with crippling schizoaffective disorder and manic depression.
Wilson’s journey was thoughtfully portrayed in the critically acclaimed 2014 film, Love and Mercy. The film portrays his battle with both internal and external forces to realize his artistic vision. Wilson is undoubtedly one of the greatest musical minds the world has ever known, but the suffering he’s endured is a struggle most of us simply couldn’t imagine.
Known for pioneering the art of using adaptive speech technology to create music, composer Lee Abramson fused complex layers of piano, bass, drums, and synths with the aid of a live band and a computerized speech program called ModelTalker. In 2005, Abramson was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, that slowly causes the death of neurons that control the body’s voluntary muscles.
Eventually, Abramson could only use a single finger to create music, and so that’s what he did. He used to compose material one note at a time in software programs like Sibelius and LogicPro. Sadly, Abramson died in 2016, but not before receiving acclaim for his work and having classes at Michigan State University study his music.
This list just barely scratches the surface of the myriad musical gifts that composers and artists with disabilities have given us, but I hope that we’ve been able to shed some light on the struggle that some of the greatest artists have had to push past in order to achieve their dreams. Share your favorite, powerful musical geniuses in the comments, below!