Beethoven's hearing loss linked to lack of high notes in his music: research
Beethoven's progressive deafness shaped his later musical style as he switched to lower notes as he had difficulty hearing higher ones, a study has found.
Researchers have analysed Beethoven's music through his life as his hearing problems are said to have progressed.
It was found that his compositions gradually included fewer high notes as he aged.
Then once total deafness overcame him, the high notes appeared again, it was found.
The analysis appears in the British Medical Journal Christmas edition and was conducted by a team in the Netherlands.
The team found that Beethoven's so-called three styles correspond wto the progression of his deafness and looked at the notes he wrote in string quartets for the violin.
His music was grouped into four time periods, 1978 to 1800, 1805/6, 1810/11 and 1824 to 1826.
The number of notes above 1568Hz written for the first violin were counted and calculated as a percentage of all the notes.
It was found that shortly after the first document symptoms of hearing loss in 1896 to 1898, the early quartets opus 18 comprised of about eight per cent high notes.
By 1805, Beethoven had reported difficulty hearing woodwinds and opus 59 written at that time contained about five per cent high notes.
Quartets opus 74 and 95 comprised of less than two per cent high notes and were written at the time Beehoven is said to have used cotton wool in his ears because of unpleasant buzzing sounds. Shortly after this visitors had to shout to be understood and Beethoven started using ear trumpets.
By 1825, after it is understood Beehoven could not hear his own Ninth Symphony, he wrote the late string quarters opus 127 to 135 and the proportion of high notes had risen again to almost four per cent.
Lead author Edoardo Saccenti, a postdoctoral research fellow, from the University of Amsterdam, wrote in the BMJ: "These results suggest that, as deafness progressed, Beethoven tended to use middle and low frequency notes, which he could hear better when music was performed, seemingly seeking for an auditory feedback loop.
"When he came to rely completely on his inner ear he was no longer compelled to produce music he could actually hear when performed and slowly returned to his inner musical world and earlier composing experiences."
However he added: "As they encompass only a limited subset of Beethoven’s compositions, our results, are far from being conclusive: proving or disproving whether Beethoven’s hearing loss had a substantial impact on shaping his musical style would require complete and exhaustive statistical and spectral analyses of the composer’s complete catalogue."
Dr Ralph Holme, Head of Biomedical Research at Action on Hearing Loss, said: “The type of hearing loss experienced by Beethoven is very common and it’s not surprising that he found hearing high tones in his music and everyday conversation increasingly difficult.
"Although Beethoven ultimately lost most of his hearing, whilst it was declining, he could have benefited from modern day digital hearing aids which can amplify the tones he missed so much.”
Beethoven chose lower-frequency notes 'due to progressive deafness'
Progressive deafness profoundly influenced Beethoven's compositions, prompting him to choose lower-frequency notes as his condition worsened, scientists have said.
Beethoven first mentioned his hearing loss in 1801 at the age of 30, complaining that he was having problems hearing the high notes of instruments and voices.
By 1812, people had to shout to make themselves understood and in 1818, he started to communicate through notebooks. In his last few years before his death in 1827, his deafness was apparently total.
Writing in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), a trio of scientists in the Netherlands dissected Beethoven's string quartets.
They grouped these works into four ages, ranging from early (1798-1800) to late (1824-26).
The experts looked at the first violin part in the first movement of each quartet, counting the number of notes above G6, which corresponds to 1,568 Hertz.
Use of higher notes decreased as the deafness progressed, they found.
To compensate, Beethoven used more middle- and low-frequency notes, which he could hear better when music was performed.
But in the late quartets - written by the time he was totally deaf - the higher notes returned.
"When he came to rely completely on his inner ear, he was no longer compelled to produce music he could actually hear when performed, and slowly returned to his inner musical world and early composing experiences," says the paper.
The study is authored by Edoardo Saccenti, Age Smilde and Wim Saris of the Netherlands Metabolomics Centre in Leiden.