Beethoven’s deafness and his three stylesBMJ 2011; 343 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d7589 (Published 20 December 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7589
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Music is divine and is a gift only few have.Beethoven was a God-gifted Music Maestro whose work few could argue or find reasons to question. Trying to assess whether his hearing loss made him shift from low note to high note and provide arguments in the form of scientific data do not prove a point or take away the greatness of a musical giant. Music came to him naturally and he breathed music in every word of it. Let us be happy this world has produced such giants who through their music acted as a communion between man and the Divine.
Though I am not a musician or have knowledge about it I know music is the voice of divinity which help soothe the frustrated minds as well as noble souls. Beethoven is a great icon who stands tall among the greatest innovations we call music which transcends all barriers and remains universal.
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On 20 December 2011, Edoardo Saccenti and colleagues published a study suggesting that, as his deafness progressed, Beethoven tended to use middle and low frequency notes, which he could hear better when music was performed. Saccenti and colleagues had counted the notes higher than G6 in the 1st violin part of the expositions in the first movements of Beethoven’s string quartets and had calculated the proportion in relation to the total number of notes in the corresponding passages.
The results seem to suggest that there was a decrease in Beethoven’s use of high notes from the early quartets opus 18 to the middle period quartets opus 59, and a further decrease to the subsequent opera 74 and 95. The fact that the use of high notes increased in the late quartets composed in the 1820s, at a time, when the composer was almost entirely deaf, was interpreted by Beethoven’s entire loss of hearing which had supposedly released him form producing music he could actually hear.
Despite the weak basis of their study, and though conceding that their conclusion claiming a correlation between Beethoven’s deafness and the decrease of high notes in his string quartets was highly speculative, Saccenti and colleagues seemed to be convinced enough of their results to publish them and, what is more, to promote the study by publishing a video on YouTube. The news made it into a couple of German, Austrian and Swiss newspapers and magazines, which however is not amazing at all: To arouse broad public interest, just choose a Beethoven (or a Nazi) subject matter.
Without any doubt a hearing disease, may it lead to total deafness or not, is a serious impairment for any professional musician, which actually endangers his existence. Thus, Beethoven’s deafness has been subject to quite a couple of studies. An investigation examining a possible impact of his disease on his compositional style would indeed be of some relevance.
However, when reading the study published by Saccenti and colleagues I couldn’t help doubting about its results, and therefore found that it required to be retested.
As a first step, I controlled whether the result of Saccenti’s study for the early quartets op. 18 was correct, adopting exactly the same criteria as they did. I found out that only 0.9% of the notes were higher than G6 – a notable difference to the 8% result calculated by Saccenti and colleagues.
Being convinced that the method of counting single notes adopted by Saccenti and colleagues was not a sufficient method for a study dealing with music, I searched for a more musical approach to the problem. An 18th or 19th century composer did not compose single notes, but he composed musical phrases: motifs, themes, figures, patterns, etc. If high notes occur in a composition, they don’t occur as isolated notes, but they occur within a musical phrase set in the upper register. Thus, if a composer aims at reducing the use of high notes, he has to avoid creating the corresponding musical contexts. Being aware that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to clearly define “musical phrases” as units appropriate for counting and calculating, I nevertheless consider it more adequate to refer to musical units larger than single notes. Such musical units are formed by measures which, in classical music of the 18th and 19th century, are to some extent related to the forming of musical phrases. Consequently, the method I opted for in my investigation is to calculate the proportion of measures containing notes higher than G6.
According to the study of Saccenti and colleagues, a decrease of high notes was observed only from the early quartets op. 18 (Q1 in the present study) to the middle period quartets op. 59 (Q2), and from the op. 59 to the subsequently composed op. 74 and 95 (Q3). No further decrease of high notes could be observed in the late quartets of the 1820s. Thus, I decided to test whether the results Saccenti and colleagues found for the first three groups of quartets would be confirmed by examining them using the method described above.
Instead of examining only selected sections of the eleven quartets I examined the entire music by counting the high register measures of every single movement.
Both methods, counting notes as well as counting measures, have their pros and cons. While counting notes doesn’t consider their differing duration – a quaver or a semiquaver is not distinguished from a minim or a semibreve – counting measures doesn’t consider that some measures contain quite a number of high notes, whereas others only contain a single one.
To make sure that the result was not distorted by a large number of measures only containing single, extremely short high notes, I made a second calculation in which such measures were eliminated which contain only one single high note shorter than one beat of the measure. Only in case two or more consecutive measures containing a single, extremely short note, this series of measures was counted as one measure.
I controlled the results by a second investigation considering the quality of high notes rather than their quantity. I searched for the highest notes – peak notes, as I call them – occurring in each movement.
1. Percentage of measures containing notes higher than G6 (table 1)
In Q1, there is an average of 1.4%, showing huge differences between the movements: five movements don’t contain any high notes, whereas two movements have 4% or more.
In Q2, an increase of high notes can be observed; here the average is 4.4%. High notes appear in each of the 12 movements. Again, there are huge differences between the movements, with percentages ranging from 0.8% to 11.6%. The factor for the increase of high note measures from Q1 to Q2 is 3.14 (see table 2).
Actually, a decrease of high notes seems to be observed when looking at Q3 which shows an average of 1.0%. However, when taking a closer look at it, it becomes quite clear that the decrease is only caused by a lack of high notes in movements 2 to 4 in op. 74, while op. 95 is corresponding with Q1 as far as the frequency of high notes is concerned. The factor of the decrease of high notes measures from Q2 to Q3 is 0.23 (see table 2).
The impact of measures containing only single extremely short notes on those results is negligibly small. If such measures are eliminated from the calculation, the increase/decrease factor is 3.20 between Q1 and Q2, and 0.25 between Q2 and Q3 (see table 2).
2. Peak notes (tables 3 and 4)
The results of the examination of high-note measures are clearly confirmed by the second examination referring to the peak notes. After having defined the median, I counted the number of movements in which the peak note is above, equal to, or below the median (table 4) in each of three quartet groups.
In Q1, 25.0% of the movements have peak notes higher than the median, in 12.5% they are equal, and in 62.5% of the movements the peak notes are lower. 79.2% of the movements have peak notes above the G6, the note which had been the criteria for the first part of the investigation.
In Q2, 10 of 12 movements have higher peak notes than the median, which is a percentage of 83.3%. In one of the two remaining movements the peak note is equal to the median, and in the other one it is lower. None of the peak notes lies below that certain G6.
Finally, in Q3, we’ve got a result similar to the one of Q1, with peak notes above the median in 37.5% of the movements and peak notes below in 62.5%. In only 50% of the measures the peak notes are higher than G6, and again it is op. 74 which is the reason for this extreme value. In three of its four movements we find peak notes which are not higher than G6 – hence it is the only quartet in which the peak notes are such low in more than one movement.
The results clearly refute the hypothesis suggested by Saccenti and colleagues. Contrariwise, it becomes quite clear that in his quartets op. 59 Beethoven composed high register passages more frequently than in op. 18 and in the subsequent quartets op. 74 and 95. While op. 95 is quite similar to the op. 18 quartets as far as the use of high notes is concerned, in op. 74 high notes are exceptionally scarce.
Consequently, there is absolutely no evidence for any kind of correlation between the frequency of Beethoven’s composing with high notes on the one hand, and his progressing deafness on the other. Instead, the frequency of high notes rather seems to depend on the individual style and character of each quartet or movement, and on the compositional concept Beethoven designed for it.
 BMJ 2011;343:d7589 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d7589.
 Actually, the study is based on a systematic sampling, which is a questionable statistic method.
 Among others: Stern 21 December 2011, Basler Zeitung 21 December 2011, Der Standard 23 December 2011, Der Tagesspiegel 23 December 2011, Bild der Wissenschaft 23 December 2011, Die Welt 25 December 2011, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 27 December 2011. – Curiously enough, all the articles published in German copied a mistake off the AFP agency: They had translated “string quartets as “Streichkonzerte” (string concerts) instead of “Streichquartette”.
 Among others: Leo Jacobsohn: Ludwig van Beethovens Gehörleiden, in: Deutsche Medizinische Wochenschrift 36 (1910), p. 1282-1612; Brian F. McCabe: Beethoven’s Deafness, in: Laryngologie, Rhinologie, Otologie und ihre Grenzgebiete 43 (1964), p. 261-70; Hans Bankl, Hans Jesserer: Ertaubte Beethoven an einer Pagetschen Krankheit? Bericht über die Auffindung und Untersuchung von Schädelfragmenten Ludwig van Beethovens, in: Laryngologie, Rhinologie, Otologie und ihre Grenzgebiete 65 (1986), p. 592-7.
 My investigation refers to: Beethoven. Werke, hg. vom Beethoven-Archiv Bonn. Abteilung VI, Band 3: Streichquartette I, hg. von Paul Mies. München-Duisburg 1962, and Band 4: Streichquartette II, hg. von Paul Mies. München-Duisburg 1968.
 No. 1, 3rd movement, no. 2, 2nd and 4th movement, no. 4, 2nd movement, and no. 5, 2nd movement.
 No. 2, 1st movement (4.0%) and no. 4, 3rd movement (4.1%).
 No. 2, 1st movement.
 No. 1, 4th movement.
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Presumably, if the avoidance of high pitches had been a stylistic imperative in Beethoven's middle period he would have written his grandest concerto for cello rather than violin. No?
Competing interests: No competing interests
The article about Beethoven’s deafness and his three styles by Saccenti and colleagues (BMJ 2011: 343:d7589 published 24-31 December, 2011) was interesting. The article is highly speculative in that Beethoven’s hearing loss was high frequency to begin with which later progressed to a flat loss which was reflected in his chronological compositions. The authors have proposed that as long as the composer could hear his low and middle tones, he included them in his compositions and when that was lost, he reverted back to high tones again. They suggest that an auditory feedback loop was responsible for his earlier post deafness compositions but are unclear as to what happened next.
The auditory feedback loop is mainly for speech articulation and self monitoring of an acoustic stimulus generated from within. So unless Beethoven hummed his tunes before writing them or playing them, it is unlikely that this was significant. It is more likely that he composed from out of his auditory memory with abstract cognitive perception of music.
A real relationship exists between hearing loss and creativity. Deafness in a creative genius directly initiates a positive illness cognition as far his art form is concerned, i.e. following an illness the genius’ expression through his art becomes more complex, more spiritual and more technically advanced for his times (1). This is probably his way of rising above his affliction to nourish the indomitable human spirit.
It is important to recognize that the complex perception of music is heavily influenced by a significant number of factors – physical (intensity, pitch, time and frequency differentials, timbre etc) and psychoacoustic or abstract (emotional state, religious and cultural beliefs, personality etc). These would be impossible to quantify in physical terms alone. Therefore psychology and its effects following deafness is the answer to Beethoven’s evolving musical repertoire vis a vis his deafness.
Man is predominantly a visually dependent species and overcompensating for a hearing loss with a heightened sense of visual awareness is a well recognized phenomenon due to reorganization of the cross modal cortex (2). Since his compositions changed profoundly following his deafness and became more poignant, it can be logically proposed that Beethoven was able to see his music. This suggests that he could have developed synaesthetic abilities which explain his post deafness brilliance and prolificacy.
1. Dasgupta Soumit. After Beethoven and Goya went deaf. Hearing Concern 2003; 11: 14-16
2. Lomber SJ et al. Cross-modal plasticity in specific auditory cortices underlies visual compensations in the deaf. Nature Neuroscience 2010; 13: 1421-1427
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Competing interests: No competing interests