Ludwig Van Beethoven stands as the übermensch of musical men, with five piano sonatas, Missa solemnis, and the acclaimed Ninth Symphony under his belt. You may not know the piece, but the all-too familiar harmony is a shocking jolt of talent to the ear. This becomes more apparent when considering that Beethoven composed the piece while losing his hearing almost entirely. In honour of his 250th birthday, exhibition and concerts displaying Beethoven’s finest pieces are hosted in Vienna in the Konzerthaus and the State Opera House. As a tribute to his talent, let’s dissect exactly how he was capable of composing music despite his poor hearing.
But first, some quick physics on music.
‘Music’ as a whole is just an amalgamation of sounds that travel in a constant progression. These sounds, travelling in simple harmonic waves, vary in pitch due to changes in frequency. Given that wavelengths are inversely proportional to frequency, shorter waves produce high-pitch frequencies while longer waves produce low pitch frequencies. Each instrument has a unique pitch, vibration, and timbre – the perceived quality of sound – that accounts for the high/low frequency produced, which is associated with how loud or soft, how high or low, the sound is.
While Beethoven’s ear wasn’t sensitive to perceive all frequencies, he relied on the vibrations emitted by each note. He would achieve this by biting on a wooden stick placed over the piano to feel the vibrations in his teeth as he played. Beethoven would go to such an extent to record notes that at one point he sawed the piano’s legs off, put his ear to the floor, and picked up whatever vibrations rebounded off the surface. As he played with the instrument’s tone and volume, Beethoven imagined the melodies in his head.
During his period of hearing loss, Beethoven was unable to pick up higher frequency notes. Thus, his later, arguable more popular pieces – Moonlight Sonata and Fidelo – subsequently acquired a lower frequency. In addition, his Seventh Symphony made use of obsessive rhythmic patterns such as the Amsterdam Rhythm, a feat revolutionary for its time. This is depicted clearly in Poco Sostenuto- Vivace, with a distinct introductory rhythmic progression. This would make composing more logically coherent and easier to distinguish notes.
Throughout his career, Ludwig Van Beethoven left behind a legacy of music steadfast against his deafness, thereby proving that the unbelievably illogical feats are embedded in history as legends. As he wrote on his diary:
“For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people ‘I am deaf’. If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a frightful state.”