Experiencing Music Beyond One’s Fingertips:
The Musical Touch of Helen Keller
In the journal Musical America during the 1910s there are reports on the musical listening experiences of American Helen Keller, a leading 20th-century author, political activist, lecturer, and champion of people with disabilities. Both deaf and blind as a result of a childhood illness, Keller became the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree and subsequently traveled to more than twenty countries advocating for the rights and equal treatment of those with disabilities. In the spring of 1916, tenor Enrico Caruso gave a private performance for Keller.
Musical America, Vol. XXIV No. 4 (27 May 1916): 28
The placement of Keller’s fingers on Caruso’s lips resulted in a mode of musical listening predominantly based on touch. But rather than acknowledge Keller’s use of touch as a means of listening to music, an unsigned brief report in Musical America conveyed skepticism if not bias. By referring to Keller’s tactile encounter with Caruso’s voice as having “heard” and “listened” (with quotations), the report promoted the misconception that conventional hearing is the only authentic musical experience; consequently, casting doubt on whether Keller was engaged in a veritable musical encounter at all. Unfortunately, this idea was popularly held in early 20th-century America. But for Keller, touch was a powerful faculty that extended far beyond its perceived limits:
I think people do not usually realize what an extensive apparatus the sense of touch is. It is apt to be confined in our thoughts to the finger-tips. In reality, the tactual sense reigns throughout the body, and the skin of every part, under the urge of necessity, becomes extraordinarily discriminating. It is approximately true to say that every particle of the skin is a feeler which touches and is touched, and the contact enables the mind to draw conclusions regarding the qualities revealed by tactual sensation, such as heat cold, pain, friction, smoothness, and roughness, and the vibrations which play upon the surface of the body.
Helen Keller, Midstream: My Later Life (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1929), 256.
Below are more accounts, by Keller and by others that appeared in the same journal, reporting on her other tactile encounters with music. A testament to Helen Keller’s remarkable life and work, these texts serve as an historical reminder of the progress made in understanding the diverse manner in which music can be experienced.
Musical America, Vol. XVIII No. 16 (23 August 1913): 10.
Musical America, Vol. XIX No. 19 (14 March 1914): 41.
Musical America, Vol. 21 No. 21 (27 March 1915): 35.
Jascha Heifetz playing for Helen Keller
The Musical Observer, vol. 28 no. 10 (December 1929): 13.
Musical America, vol. 25 no. 9 (30 December 1916): 6.
Fortunately, there is also video documentation of Helen Keller’s musical touch, this time listening to the opera singer Gladys Swarthout.
RIPM search tip: To view more on Helen Keller in Musical America, access RIPM’s Preservation Series: European and North American Music, and in “Advanced Search”, fill in the following fields: Periodical = Musical America (New York, 1898-1899, 1905-1922 [-1964]); Keyword =Helen Keller.
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