The Deafness Effect

by Ivan Ye

One of most well known facts about Beethoven is that he became deaf. In fact, when Beethoven was just 26, he began to experience ringing in his ears. He had a severe form of tinnitus that ultimately made him completely deaf. The intense ringing made it hard for him to have conversations and to hear music, impacting his compositions. In a paper published by the British Medical Journal, Edoardo Saccenti, Age Smilde and Wim Saris of the Netherlands have shown that Beethoven’s deafness had a measureable effect on his music.

In 1801, Beethoven sent a letter mentioning hearing loss to his doctor, pinpointing the start of his deafness. He wrote that he had “to get very close to the orchestra to understand the performers” and could not “hear the high notes of the instruments and the singers’ voices.” His form of hearing loss did indeed hinder his ability to hear high-pitched notes, which had a quantitative effect on his music. From 1801 to 1825, researchers discovered that Beethoven favored notes in the lower to middle range by analyzing his compositions from that time period. Specifically, they looked at his opus 74 to opus 95 quartets and found that they contained less than two percent high notes. Beethoven’s quartets before 1801 averaged around eight percent high notes.

After 1825, Beethoven was completely deaf. Surprisingly, the percent of high notes in his opus 127 to opus 135 quartets rose to around four percent. The researchers speculate that because he could not hear what he was composing, he relied on his earlier composition experience rather than what he could hear, increasing the percentage of high-pitched notes.

The researchers acknowledge that their findings are not conclusive, because they sampled only some portion of Beethoven’s compositions. His music changes drastically from the early, middle, and late period, and his deafness has always been hypothesized to be a factor. The new study has found quantitative evidence to support that hypothesis. Take some time and listen to Beethoven’s middle and late period quartets. See if you can hear the difference.

For more information on the paper, check out:  http://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d7589

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