We tend to think of playing an instrument as a visual thing to do. Most of us use sight when learning to play piano, but plenty of blind piano players out there had to learn the hard way, without the use of this sense.
Any blind musicians are at a big disadvantage, and some of them have become some of the most talented and best piano players in the world in spite of their handicap. A few obvious musicians spring to mind. Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles are household names, and rightly so. There are lots of other incredible blind composers and piano players, as you will learn reading this list.
1. Ray Charles
One of the famous blind people to master the art of playing piano was Ray Charles, blind musical pioneer. Many of the questions you may have about this musical pioneer are answered in the film biopic of his life, “Ray”. How did Ray Charles go blind? Aged just 4, glaucoma started to cause him to lose his vision. He was totally blind by 7.
Charles had started to learn how to play piano when he was just 3, but his lessons from a family friend had been informal. Eventually, he learned classical piano using braille music. This is a tough process that means you learn the left hand movements and right hand movements separately while reading the braille.
Ray is remembered as one of the pioneers of soul music. His accolades from the rest of the music world are considerable, with his musical contemporaries describing Charles as a “true genius”.
His most commercial successes include 60s releases “Georgia on My Mind” and “Hit the Road, Jack”. In 1962 he also released the album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” which was a huge commercial hit, selling a million records.
His successes didn’t end there, and Charles was still performing until his death in 2004. As a blind black pianist and blind composer, he was a real trailblazer and is remembered as one of the true musical legends of his time. His playing was emotive and often joyous, leaving his audiences enraptured.
It is fair to describe Moondog as an enigmatic blind musician. His real name was Louis Hardin, and though he passed away over two decades ago, he is remembered as an influential and frankly eccentric musician.
Not forced into homelessness, Moondog chose to live on the streets, which he decided as a big impact on his work. Subway sounds and other noises from the streets were said to make their way into his compositions and change the way he played.
He went blind at the age of 16. He taught himself most of his musical knowledge by ear, but did use braille for some lessons after this. As a youngster, he had been a talented drummer, too.
Moondog used to dress as Thor, the Norse god, and this was before his story had been turned into a famous film franchise.
He was actually born in Kansas, but Louis could be found between New York’s 52nd and 55th Street, wearing his full getup and becoming known by locals as a blind singer or blind piano player. He would sell his music in the area, too. Moondog was sometimes called “the Viking of 6th Avenue”.
Moondog released 16 solo albums. None of them were particularly popular if you just look at the sales, but musicians including Philip Glass described him as an influence. There’s no doubting that Louis Hardin made a real impact in his own way.
3. Marcus Roberts
There is little doubting the fact that Marcus Roberts is one of the best jazz piano players and an amazing example of a blind musician. Though he’s probably best known for jazz, Roberts plays swing music and classical, too. He’s also not just a jazz pianist. He has become known as a band leader and a composer.
He comes from a musical family. His mother was a gospel singer, and though he did not start piano lessons formally until age 12, it is clear to see what a special talent he is. Born in Florida, he lost his sight at the age of 4 as a result of glaucoma and cataracts. Around the same time, he started experimenting with playing the organ in church.
Interestingly, in Florida, he attended Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind, which is where Ray Charles had also studied as a young man. A fascinating coincidence that two of the most famous blind people to play piano went to the same school.
He shot to prominence in the 1980s. He was brought into Wynton Martals’s band due to the style of playing, which had more ragtime styling than other members of the band. His career has grown since, and he has formed his own bands, and released music as a band member and band leader. Dozens of albums span classical, jazz and many other influences and genres.
Roberts has been described as “the logical successor to Thelonious Monk” due to his wild piano playing. It’s clear to see how immersed he is in his playing, and the style he possesses has also drawn comparisons with Fats Waller. Soulful, and unbelievably talented, Marcus Roberts is one of the modern greats of the piano, who happens to also be a blind musician.
4. Stevie Wonder
He might be the most famous blind composer and pianist in the world. Stevie Wonder, born Stevland Hardaway Morris, is a household name. His iconic style and glasses (it’s hard to find a picture of Stevie Wonder without glasses) are combined with some huge hits such as “Superstition” and “Isn’t She Lovely”.
He’s one of the blind musicians to make such a huge impact on the whole landscape of music. His 1976 album “Songs in the Key of Life” was revolutionary, and has impacted loads of musicians who have shot to prominence since it was released.
Stevie has been inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame and his composition skills have been recognized by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. You could spend a long time researching his achievements and recognition in the industry. He has 25 Grammy awards, and was even given a Presidential Medal of Freedom award by Barack Obama. We could write a whole article about his achievements and industry recognition!
In terms of his blindness and early life, Stevie Wonder was born prematurely. This caused retinopathy, a common issue for people born early. It causes the body to stop the final development stages of the eyes and means that the retinas can detach. This is what happened to Wonder, meaning he was blind as a baby, unlike many of the blind musicians on this list who went blind as children.
He was involved in music from a young age. After his parents divorced when he was Four, his mother moved to Detroit. Stevie Wonder became part of the Whitestone Baptist Church and sang in their choir, the first step on his musical journey. He quickly learned multiple instruments as a child.
There’s no denying he was a prodigious talent. His name “Stevie Wonder” came from the fact that the CEO of Tamla, a Motown record label, signed Stevie to the label when he was just 11. Berry Gordy had heard a song Wonder wrote himself and signed the child prodigy. He nicknamed him “Little Stevie Wonder” and it stuck.
Stevie Wonder’s 70’s releases are perhaps his most iconic, but he remains active today. He even has 9 children! Rarely has there been such a musical talent, especially one without their sense of sight. Stevie Wonder can play multiple instruments including Drums, and his musicianship and composition is rightly regarded as some of the best the world has ever seen.
5. Ronnie Milsap
Another of the famous piano players of the 20th century. Many of the musicians on this list are top jazz piano players, but Milsap’s stylings are totally different. He is known as being a pioneer in the world of country music.
He was born almost completely blind, and had a tough upbringing. As a small child, he was left by his mother and subsequently raised by his grandparents. He was raised in a family of poverty. When he was 14, the limited sight he had left in one of his eyes was lost after he was slapped by a member of his school’s staff.
He was a talent from an early age, learning to play instruments while he was studying at the Governor Morehead School. His classical education started when he was around 14.
Milsap’s first single in 1963 was something of a success. He sold 15,000 copies and experienced moderate success throughout the 60s, but in the 1970s he had a huge breakthrough and the crazy amount of success he has experienced began.
In 1973, he signed to RCA records and his single “I Hate You” reached the top 10 in the country charts. In 1974 the hits really started to roll. “Pure Love” and “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” both went to number one, and Milsap even won his very first Grammy Award. The number ones didn’t stop there.
To call him a country music legend is perhaps an understatement. He has an incredible 35 number one country music chart hits. He’s still releasing music to this day, and an album of duets came out in 2019.
6. George Shearing
George Shearing is a famous British musician, who made his name in the jazz genre. He was born in 1919 and was the youngest of nine (yes, nine). He experienced a lot of hardships as a child, and managed to succeed as a musician in spite of difficult circumstances.
Shearing is a blind composer, who wrote over 300 songs, many of which became hits. He actually showed a passion for piano as an incredibly young child, as young as 3 or 4 years old according to some reports.
Due to the financial hardships he experienced, he had to turn down the chance to go to university with a full scholarship so that he could perform in the local pub. He got paid just £5 a week playing in a full band made up of blind musicians.
He was broadcast on the BBC back in the 1930s and finally started to get recognition for his talents. In the 1940s, he moved to America and became a widely renowned jazz musician. His style mixed jazz, swing and even some modern classical stylings. He was even invited to perform for three different presidents in the White House.
Shearing lived to the age of 91 and was active in music through most of his life. This lead to hundreds of single and album releases with him credited as composer or performer. He became an icon, and before passing in 2011, he was Knighted by the Queen of England in 2007 for his services to music, meaning “Sir George Shearing” is technically the correct way to say his name.
His awards include a Lifetime Achievement Award given by the BBC Jazz Awards, but the impact this incredible musician had goes so much further than just awards. Shearing succeeded against all odds and gave the world some jazz standard hits.
7. Andrea Bocelli
Andrea Bocelli is probably best known for his singing voice, and most of his accolades have come from the fact he is one of the greatest voices of his generation, or even of all time! Few people know that Bocelli is a talented blind musician. As well as having an incredible voice he can play both piano and flute as well as dabbling in many other instruments.
Bocelli was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma. He was born after a troubled pregnancy and his mother was actually advised to abort Andrea due to the fact that he was likely to have a serious disability when he was born. He opposes abortion now, due to the experience his mother had.
Bocelli was brought up in Tuscany, near Pisa. His family owned a farm and even made their own wine. As a youngster, his musical talents had already started to show. In fact, his mother has said that during a troubled childhood, music was Bocelli’s outlet, he started to play piano when he was 6 and also had lessons for many other instruments.
His singing career began at age 7 when he started to try and mimic the voices of incredible opera singers and classical musicians after being given a record by his Nanny.
Bocelli had some sight until he was 12, but during a game of football he was hit in the head and lost the sight he had retained. He actually studied as a lawyer, and spent a year working in the legal field. The fact that he was such a talented musician meant he paid his way through studying by performing, and eventually performing took over.
Bocelli has sold millions of records, and though most people know he is an incredible singer, he doesn’t get the praise he deserves as a talented musician.
8. Nobuyuki Tsujii
One of the best pianists out there today, Nobuyuki Tsujii is still relatively young. Videos of his playing are truly spellbinding, and many videos of him have gone viral on YouTube and around social media.
Tsujii shouldn’t just be on lists of the best blind piano players, he is one of the best piano players in the world of any type.
Born blind, he seemed to have a natural connection to music and an aptitude for it. His mother encouraged this and got him playing a toy piano as a tiny kid. By age 4 he had some basic knowledge of the piano and could play some simple songs. By 7, he was a talented musician and won a talent competition for blind students in Japan.
Tsujii writes his own music, and his compositions have become well known in the world of contemporary classical music. His abilities extend far beyond just playing other peoples compositions.
In 2011, he qualified with a degree from Ueno Gakuen Uni, and has become idolized by many Japanese aspiring musicians due to his achievements despite his disability. An amazing documentary film called “Touching the Sound” focuses on his career.
Considering he has achieved all of this by his 30s is pretty impressive. Nobuyuki Tsujii is bound to continue to grow as a musician and become more of a household name in the west as well.
9. Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano was born in 1919 and sadly died in the 1970s. He is known as a famous blind pianist but is also known for his other musical talents, including being an arranger and composer. He also played a key role in educating many jazz musicians, and influenced a whole generation of piano players.
Tristano was influenced heavily by Nat King Cole, a fellow blind musician named Art Tatum, who he briefly worked with, and Charlie Parker. Sadly, due to the era in which he was working, there is not that much out there to listen to, and some of Tristano’s back catalog can be hard to get hold of.
He’s known more for what he did for music, educating others and being cited as an influence by Jazz megastars including Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis. Tristano has inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, in 1913 he was recognized for Crosscurrents, which was released in the 1940s. Tristano may not be a household name, but there’s no doubt about the impact he had on jazz music from the 1930s to the 1970s and his untimely death.
Kuha’o is the youngest pianist to make our list, and though he doesn’t really have a full catalog of music to listen to at the moment, it is clear to see his talents. He’s just 17. Full name Kuha‘o Makana Kawaauhau, he has been playing piano since the age of 9.
Kuha’o is the kind of pianist that documentaries will be made on. It’s hard for the rest of us to understand these incredible talents. He can listen to virtually any song and instantly play it back by ear. His understanding of music is unbelievable, and has been described by some as a gift from the gods. A quick look at some of his playing on YouTube, you’ll find it hard to believe his abilities are human.
Kuha‘o’s story is one of miracles. He was born two months premature and doctors didn’t even think he was going to survive. Not only did he thrive, he was said to have a special capacity for learning even when he was just 3 or 4 years old. In his short life, he’s already been invited to give a TEDx talk and at numerous conventions. He is working as a motivational speaker as well as a musician and plans to further his career in this direction.
This is one of the stories that shows the inspiration of these blind musicians, who have overcome the adversity they were born with, or that they were burdened with as children, to become talented and successful musicians. Some of the greatest musicians out there are blind, and should be celebrated.