Music’s Communicative Force

An Excerpt from Song without Words

Editor’s Note: Gerald Shea’s memoir, Song without Words, is a story of living with, discovering, and coming to terms with hearing loss. This music-related excerpt, one of several poignant ones in the book, occurs after Shea has been diagnosed with hearing loss and has been wearing hearing aids for years. He visits Paul Berle, the head of Louisiana State University’s Kresge Hearing Research Laboratory.

* * * *

“Do you play the piano?”

“Well, yes. Why?”

“Would you say something?” say say play something There was an upright piano in the corner of Berle’s office, to the right as you walk in, and I hadn’t noticed it. I went over to the bench to play; he got up from his desk, drew up to my stool, and sat down beside me with a pen and notepad.

I played a piece from Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood.” When I was finished, he said nothing, so I followed with—why not—the first of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words.” They are both easy pieces. I couldn’t hear the highest notes, but I imagine them when I play, as my fingers strum the right side of the keyboard, as if a table. I had no idea why he had asked me to play.

He was jotting something down. “You play well.”

“Thanks. I’m not very good, but I love to play. I memorize pieces because I can’t sight read.”

“Perhaps some saysome say some day “you’ll take the time to learn.”

Fat chance, I thought. “I’ll never have the time.”

“Oh? Could you hear what you played?”

“Most of it—except for some highs, but they were there.”

“Excellent. Now—”

“Why did you ask me to play?”

“Well, you seemed musical to me. After all you sang for me, and New Orleans is a musical city, and the piano was right there.”

“Yes—but why?”

“I—have a theory about the deaf and music. To take a preeminent example, you can hear Beethoven’s deafness in his music.”

“The low notes—”

“Well, they’re certainly there, but it’s perhaps not so much the lows—it may be the highs that you have to listen for—that he heard with such difficulty, that he missed so profoundly. Music for the deaf, for the partially deaf, in my clinical experience, appears to supplant the music others hear in words themselves, the fullness of each word and of all of them together. Music is not a language, but it has overwhelming immune if a tic fours.” a tic tic icatica icative imunica—communicative force. “Mendelssohn himself said it about what you just played. When a friend offered to write words for it, he emphasized that the music expressed ideas not ‘too indefinite’ to put into words but, on the contrary, ‘too definite.’ That’s why you find it—why Edison, to take another example, though he was not a musician, found it—”

“Irresistible.” The birds the rainfall the footsteps the breaths the water the crickets O burly gentle mole the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet, the merry bubble and joy of my earlier life

“In the case of the profoundly deaf, the music lies in the play of their visual language itself. Their eyes betray that music; that is, they let us see it as they ‘speak.’ And when you were playing, your eyes gave you away as well. They were somewhere else. Lots of dessert.”

“Lots of what?”

“They were not of this earth.”

From the book Song without Words, by Guest Writer Gerald Shea. Reprinted by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.

Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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