Tinnitus, Auditory Knowledge and the Arts


In July 2020 I [Marie] took up a post the Open University as a Lecturer in Popular Music. Re-joining a music department has provided a useful opportunity to reflect on the relationship between tinnitus and the study of music. Thinking with and through tinnitus can provide an important reminder of what tends to be passed over in silence in scholarly discussions of music and musical listening; and can serve to challenge and reconfigure some longstanding tenets of the field. Indeed, tinnitus has been a recurring theme in narratives about music and yet is concealed by invocations of an ideal – and unimpaired – musical listener.

Music’s ideal listener

While central to the medium, practices of musical listening have often been considered secondary to the form, style and composition of the musical work, and the life and activities of the composer or artist. On the one hand, listening tends to appear as unacknowledged ‘given’: a timeless, natural, universal and unproblematic mode of perception. On the other, music educators have frequently argued for the need to learn to listen carefully – which is to say, in a focused, attentive and analytic manner – so as to be able gain a full appreciation of music. While these might seem like contradictory tendencies – one asserts listening as innate, passive and natural; the other as cultivated, learned and active – both are predicated on an ideal listener, with an (unacknowledged and unimpaired) capacity for hearing.

There is now a significant body of scholarship that has sought to challenge such singular accounts of musical listening. Contesting musicology’s valorisation of structural listening and conflation of the attentive listener with the musical listener, scholars have elucidated musical listening as multiple, complex, fluid, subjective and historically situated. (e.g. see Kassabian 2013; Herbert 2016; Thorau and Ziemer 2018) These accounts have provided important challenges for thinking about music and its history, and have highlighted musicology’s indebtedness to particular ideological constructs of auditory perception. However, they have often maintained the assumed coherence between (unimpaired) hearing, aurality and listening, even as they expand the latter to incorporate other sensory modes such as touch.

When musical listening has been considered from the perspective of auraldiversity or disability, discussions have often centred on the experiences and practices of d/Deaf musicians and audiences. Yet, as Jessica Holmes makes clear, attempts to expand musical listening to incorporate and acknowledge d/Deaf listening practices have sometimes relied on problematic generalisations about d/Deaf perception and sonic experience, which reduce the spectrum of d/Deafness to the most extreme constructions of aural loss and d/Deaf listening to vibration and tactility. (Holmes 2017) Indeed, within both scholarly and popular discourse, another ideal listener has been constructed. Where the ideal hearing musical listener receives music with open ears, the ideal d/Deaf musical listener’s ears are entirely closed, receiving music as touch. These two, oppositional ideals of listening serve to silence, amongst other things, a huge variety of musical listening practices that are predicated on different capacities, modes and abilities to engage with sound aurally, visually and tactility.

For the musical listener with tinnitus, itself a diverse auditory condition that is resistant to generalisation, neither the ‘unimpaired’ open-eared listener nor the d/Deaf ‘haptic’ listener are likely to generate satisfactory comparisons. Indeed, the musical listener with tinnitus may also be the d/Deaf musical listener: the combination of which undermines the assumption that d/Deafness is predicated on an alienation from the sonic. For those of us whose ears ‘sing along’ when we listen to music, other models are needed.

Music as mask, music as amplifier

Music’s therapeutic capacity – its capacity to influence listener’s mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing – has been cited as one of its key virtues and values. Streaming services reproduce music as a ‘personalised care product’: there are innumerable Spotify playlists that now promise to help us take care of ourselves and others (Anderson 2015; Thompson and Drott 2020). Music, it is said, is a kind of medicine: in both psychotherapeutic and clinical settings it is thought to help soothe the ill.

For those with tinnitus, too, music can be an important therapeutic resource. However, where the health benefits of listening to music have often been tied to its mythologised impact on body and soul, for listeners with tinnitus, music’s therapeutic virtues concern not only its affective and signifying properties – its capacity to calm and soothe, or remind us of loved ones or enjoyable time – but also its capacity to act as a sonic mask. Music can become a means of abating tinnitus, concealing the perceived sound or sounds. This ‘tinnital’ musical listening might be characterised in terms of distraction: music serves to direct attention away from our internal sounds, drawing us out of ourselves, directing our perception elsewhere.

Music’s use as a form of sonic abatement might be considered one facet of ‘tinnital’ musical listening. However, such practices are not uncommon amongst those without tinnitus. Music may serve to mask a variety of noises – both ‘personal’ and external. It may be used to drown out the sounds of our housemates or neighbours; to conceal the sounds of traffic; or it may hide an unfamiliar quietude.

However, while music can act as a mask, it may also act as an amplifier, exacerbating the sounds of tinnitus. Musical listening can serve to debilitate as well as soothe. Consequently, for those of us with tinnitus, we may need to withdraw from, as well as into, music. This is most likely to be the case when music is loud and persistent. However, insofar as it may prevent us from hearing music ‘properly’ – such as when tinnitus fills musical pauses, or when it distorts singing voices – listening to music can also serve to amplify negative emotional responses to tinnitus. Tinnitus’ relationship to musical listening thus serves as an important reminder of the ambiguity that accompanies the so-called ‘power of music’, whereby its ability to soothe and health is counterposed by its ability to harm and debilitate. (Cheng 2019; Hirsch 2012; Johnson and Cloonan 2013)

 The cost of ‘artistic standards’

Although it is often concealed by music studies’ ideal listener and disavowal of auditory impairment, tinnitus has an intimate relationship with music and musicians. Tinnitus features in the biographies of both composers and rock stars, acting as a signifier of a musical life cruelly diminished by auditory impairment or, alternatively, as a signifier of an adventurous life well-lived. Beyond these romanticised narratives, tinnitus is a common yet infrequently discussed auditory condition amongst musicians: a recent study has found musicians, along with construction workers, at high-risk of tinnitus, due in part to experiencing higher levels of occupational and recreational ‘music noise exposure’. (Couth et al. 2019) Indeed, approaching music through tinnitus situates the former amongst listening and labouring bodies. Legal cases brought about by musicians who have developed auditory impairments in their line of work make clear the tensions between ideologies of artistic value, materialist concerns regarding workers’ rights and the specificities of musical labour. In the case Chris Goldscheider versus the Royal Opera House, which was brought about after the viola player’s hearing was allegedly damaged in during a 2012 rehearsal for Wagner’s opera Die Walkure resulting in tinnitus, hyperacusis and hearing loss, the ‘cost’ of maintaining ‘artistic standards’ became apparent. The judge found that the defendant—the Royal Opera House—could not eliminate the risk of noise exposure during the rehearsal, given that the ‘source’ was the instruments being played. However, where the Royal Opera House conceded that the rehearsal could have taken place at a lower volume, ‘this would have unreasonably compromised the artistic output of the orchestra.’ The judge concluded:

I am left with a sense that the ROH’s wish to maintain the highest artistic standards and uphold its reputation coupled with the deference accorded to the artistic aims of leading conductors were factors which had the potential to impact upon its obligations pursuant to the 2005 [Control of Noise at Work] Regulations. However laudable the aim to maintain the highest artistic standards it cannot compromise the standard of care which the ROH as an employer has to protect the health and safety of its employees when at their workplace. (Goldscheider vs Royal Opera House 2019)

Such cases raise significant questions for those invested in music – as artists, researchers or lovers. How do we negotiate the capacity for harm that underpins notions of artistic integrity, fidelity and standard? What are the implications of this capacity for harm for how we create, discuss and listen to music? How do we articulate the relationship between music and noise exposure? How do we advocate for musical workers’ rights, without falling back onto audist fantasies that posit auditory impairment as a uniquely horrifying outcome for musicians; nor naturalising auditory impairment as an inevitability that ‘comes with the territory?’

Conclusion: learning through tinnitus

In approaching music with and through tinnitus, there is much that can be learned about both. Although tinnitus is resistant to generalisation – how it manifests varies widely between listeners – it is nonetheless a fruitful starting point from which to consider music’s imbrication with disability and impairment, labour and harm, noise and noise abatement. Consequently, music with tinnitus has the potential not only to be incorporated into studies of music but to transform them.


Anderson, Paul Allen. 2015. ‘Neo-Muzak and the Business of Mood’. Critical Inquiry 41 (4): 811–40. https://doi.org/10.1086/681787

Cheng, William. 2019. Loving Music Till It Hurts. Oxford University Press.

Couth, Samuel, Naadia Mazlan, David R. Moore, Kevin J. Munro, and Piers Dawes. 2019. ‘Hearing Difficulties and Tinnitus in Construction, Agricultural, Music, and Finance Industries: Contributions of Demographic, Health, and Lifestyle Factors’. Trends in Hearing 23 (January): 233121651988557. https://doi.org/10.1177/2331216519885571.

Goldscheider vs Royal Opera House. 07/04/2019. Royal Courts of Justice. https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/goldscheider-v-roh-judgment.pdf

Herbert, Ruth. 2016. Everyday Music Listening: Absorption, Dissociation and Trancing. Routledge.

Hirsch, Lily E. 2012. Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment. University of Michigan Press.

Holmes, Jessica A. 2017. ‘Expert Listening beyond the Limits of Hearing: Music and Deafness’. Journal of the American Musicological Society 70 (1): 171–220. https://doi.org/10.1525/jams.2017.70.1.171.

Johnson, Bruce, and Martin Cloonan. 2013. Dark Side of the Tune: Popular Music and Violence. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Kassabian, Anahid. 2013. Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. University of California Press.

Thompson, Marie, and Eric Drott. 2020. ‘Music Is Still at Work Even If Musicians Aren’t: Care, Reproduction, Crisis – Working in Music’. 2020. https://wim.hypotheses.org/1430.

Thorau, Christian, and Hansjakob Ziemer. 2018. The Oxford Handbook of Music Listening in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Oxford University Press.

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Tinnitus, Auditory Knowledge, and the Arts
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