How Beethoven Composed While Deaf

Friday, December 16, 2016 - 10:32 AM

Beethoven may have used math to help him compose as he lost his hearing. (Youtube / TedEd)

Beethoven’s deafness is the music fact to end all music facts. You might have learned it in school, where it soon became your go-to “did you know?” But even though it’s something you might have known for a while, it still blows your mind from time to time. How did someone without the ability to hear create music as sweet as "Fur Elise" or uplifting as his Ninth Symphony?

Turns out, the answer is math. In this slick TED Ed animation, mathematician and music lover Natalya St. Clair explains the surprisingly complex role that math plays in your favorite compositions. She uses the "Moonlight" Sonata to illustrate her point; the strict patterns of the piece’s central theme are a perfect example of how one could build, in theory, a deeply emotional piece of music without actually needing to hear any of it.

That’s not to say Beethoven wasn’t an exceptional composer whose huge talent was able to carry him during those silent years. If anything, the fact that he could recognize and rely on these structures to create more great music is astounding.

Number nerds, this one is for you.


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Comments [11]

Edshire from Somerset NJ

It seems simple to me. Beethoven lies in bed and in his head he is playing an imaginary piano. His fingers strike a key he hears the sound. Hits some more keys, he hears the melody. He makes adjustments. He envisions the dynamics. Voila, The Moonlight Sonata.

Dec. 23 2016 07:12 PM
Helene from Valley Stream

Some random thoughts:
So mathematicians count on their fingers?

Assuming the author of the talk and concept is not just kidding, there's no understanding of art or creativity. Untalented composers rely on patterns and rarely come up with something out of the ordinary. The geniuses come up with new patterns.

But mathematics, and logic too, can be part of an unconscious thought process.

Ok, now I'll check out the video.

Dec. 22 2016 10:21 PM
Brunnhilde from NYC

I'm sure he just heard this music in his head. He was not deaf all his life. He knew the sounds he wanted and was the utmost master that could put it all together in his head. We musicians and music lovers can hear music in our heads (already composed), but it takes a master like Beethoven to create the music....and write it down.

Dec. 22 2016 10:55 AM
The Baron from Long Island City

1) When Beethoven became deaf he could still hear the music that existed in his mind. Indeed, where else could music possibly exist? Notes reified by an instrument are merely sounds. When they are arranged in a certain way the mind interprets this as music.

Provided that a person is not deaf from birth and has experienced sound at some point (and musical sounds in particular) this phenomenon does not depend entirely or exclusively on physical auditory ability, especially when the person is a trained musician and a composer.

2) In order for the relationship between mathematics and certain musical compositions to be presented with cogency and the greatest clarity by academics (and others who are inclined to do so) it has to be done "a posteriori", i.e., after the creative act of musical composition by a human being. Mathematicians, A.I. scientists, audio engineers and people in related fields have the ability to create sounds which can pass for music based on algorithms but they cannot create a true masterwork like Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14 ("Moonlight") in this way, at least not yet.

Dec. 21 2016 03:43 AM

As a composer myself, composers hear music in their heads. They don't need to hear it externally. Plus, how do you think a conductor learns an orchestral score? The conductor has to be able to hear it in his head.

Dec. 20 2016 10:33 AM
Russ from Plainfield, NJ

I would propose that Beethoven's ability to write exquisite music while deaf is a combination of things. There is undeniably a mathematical component to musical structure. When one so innately talented has been involved in music all their life, while more likely quite unconsciously, the mathematical component comes as naturally as the other parts of composition. I haven't a whit of composition talent yet would suppose that someone of his immense talent would have had music running unbidden through his head all his life. Like what Salieri says about Mozart in the movie Amadeus; "But they showed no corrections of any kind. Not one. He had simply written down music already finished in his head. Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation." Strictly a mathematical method? Unlikely. A part of the process? Likely. I guess we'll need the WABAC machine to know for sure.

Dec. 19 2016 04:03 PM
Jon Kruege

Go to a quiet room and put in earplugs.

Notate "twinkle twinkle little star".

Now invent a short tonal sequence and notate it.

Clearly the thing can be done.

Just as clearly it's a lot harder to write entire pieces this way. Let alone good ones. But it can be done.

What's happening inside you while you're doing it?

Probably not equations.

Probably more like what any good musician does: hear the note before you play it or sing it.

Dec. 19 2016 10:12 AM
Beth from Burlington, NC

I am as skeptical as the first two writers. I believe that while Beethoven could not hear the speech of others, his head MUST have been filled with the music he wanted to compose-- and he already knew how to record it on paper. I may be mistaken about this conclusion, but even though the olfactory nerves in his ears were not working, surely the part of his brain that was involved in his composing was as active and filled with his music as ever!

Dec. 18 2016 07:35 PM
Andrew from Irvington

This article is an extended non-sequitur of the sort that is all too common in TED talks. In this case, just because Beethoven said that he always had a picture in his mind while composing, and because musical notes do display the patterns described here, it does not necessarily follow that these patterns formed the picture that guided Beethoven's composing (I am assuming that the author has at least accurately paraphrased Beethoven here.)

Dec. 18 2016 03:18 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

How wonderful it is that so original and distinguished a mathematician should be provoking our thoughts about Beethoven's creativity, here on his birthday anniversary. I shamefacedly admit, however, that I'm very skeptical about to what extent this study ... whose math principles I don't question since I'm not a mathematician ... is really apropos the question of Beethoven's awesome creative powers, especially after he became deaf. There's the rub: because for me, the inalienable fact that he had no difficulty hearing as a child, when mental patterns including speech, of course, are formed, and that he performed at the keyboard gives the lie to the belief if any have such, that he composed and performed without ever had the gift of hearing. For me, his memory of same plus imagination that manifested itself in creativity is the closest anyone can come to an explanation. The video concerning the "Moonlight Sonata" I watched with great interest. It just seems too pat, the one dissonant measure notwithstanding. There are far too many instances of Beethoven's "jumping out of the box" that this math explanation can't account for, as far as I'm concerned. Let's take the bars immediately preceding the last movement of the "Hammerklavier Sonata". What kind of pattern "inspired" those unprepared abrupt key changes? What about the entirety of the "Grosse Fuge"? What about final string quartets? One of my favorite examples of Beethoven "thinking aloud" such that the whole world can follow, occurs in the "Eroica Symphony", specfically the coda of the first movement. The movement's principal motive, tonality of E flat major, is stated "fortissimo" on the full orchestra in D flat major, without as much as a "by your leave". Then it's heard again thundered out in C major! Then, the second violins begin the motive again, but the first violins begin a counter theme that somehow... miraculously to me every time I hear it ... peters out and the only the first violins are joined by the second violins in a very, very unexpected key change that resolves in a c minor theme that was used in the development section. For me, this is an example of Beethoven's uncanny way of discovering just the right thing at just the right time and doing so with complete conviction. For all I know, it could very well be that the math example was at work in my examples, but, I believe it to be subsidiary rather than a primary motivator to the aforementioned awesome creative power that allowed him so much "thinking outside the box". Happy Birthday, Maestro Beethoven. Oh, he could speak and write Italian, too.

Dec. 16 2016 03:34 PM
David from Flushing

I have read that he held a stick in his mouth and this transmitted sound from the piano lid by bone conduction.

Dec. 16 2016 03:24 PM

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