Blind World

Blind musicians can lead sighted listeners to the music.

November 15, 2004.

The Saratogian.

Close your eyes and listen to the music in your mind.

Seriously. Choose a tune and listen. Is it there? Can you hear it? Is it a simple melody or a full symphony orchestra playing Beethoven's Fifth? Would you hear that inner music 'better' if you were blind? Would you hear actual musical pitches better if you were blind? New research from the Montreal Neurological Institute and McGill University indicates that the blind are better than the sighted not only at hearing, but at pitch discrimination as well.

Their blindness may aid in their musical development, the research suggests.

Perhaps there is no more appropriate time for this observation than now, while the public mourns the death of the incredibly talented -- and blind -- musician Ray Charles, whose life story is the subject of a highly acclaimed film 'Ray,' now at area theaters. While the blind are known to be better at orienting themselves spatially by sound, this is the first research suggesting better pitch differentiation performance -- but only if they became blind at an early age, defined as within two years after birth.

Ray Charles, who kept his sight until about age 7, would have enjoyed no musical advantage based on his blindness, according to this study.

And while the study did test performances of sighted people in judging changing pitches, the news clip I received doesn't mention factoring in other important experiences, which I believe may be incredibly influential in developing a musical 'ear' for both blind and sighted people.

First, did the subject have access to a piano or other instrument, and to musical instruction from a young age? Other studies have found that string instrument players cannot develop an accurate sense of pitch unless they begin studying the instrument at a very young age. The ear must be trained through use, it seems.

And probably even more importantly, how much television did the sighted subjects in this study watch? I strongly believe that watching television is responsible for reduced musical capabilities in the past 50 years. TV has filled the blocks of time that people used to devote to the parlor piano, or singing or other musical pursuits.

We know that Ray Charles was sent to a boarding school for the blind at a very young age, and that many schools for the blind involve their students in musical instruction. As an undergraduate studying music education, I had a classmate -- blind since birth -- who had attended the Perkins School for the Blind for his early education. An accomplished pianist with a magnificent memory, he could easily ace any musical dictation test, and did his best to help me memorize and identify intervals and chords for those dreaded exams in which students must notate the music the professor plays: music dictation. It's a mind game -- much like closing your eyes and hearing music -- but it's one that can be learned through diligence.

Perhaps the visually impaired are forced to focus on sound, in compensation for their lost sense of sight. Results of a study by neurologists at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, published in January, detail the higher incidence of 'absolute pitch' (AP) in blind musicians, as compared to the incidence among sighted musicians who had begun their musical training at a younger age.

The study suggests that neural mechanisms underlying AP in blind musicians could differ from those in sighted musicians. (Absolute pitch 'AP' is defined as the ability to identify a particular pitch of the Western musical scale without any external reference tone.) Also, these researchers cited data indicating that there are significant differences in brain morphology between sighted musicians with AP and those without AP in a region of the brain traditionally associated with language and auditory processing.

And what does this say about Ray Charles, and perhaps Stevie Wonder, and maybe about young musicians today, sighted or not? I think what it says is that listening can make a difference, and that close focus to music can lead a student to become a better musician. It isn't talent, or chance, but patterns worn into the brain that make that difference between mediocrity and the kind of abilities that made Ray Charles a musical great.

And the blind can lead us to hear the difference.

Judith White is a freelance writer and music reviewer. Her column is published the second Sunday of each month. Contact her at

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