Did Beethoven's Hearing Loss Shape His Compositions?

Dutch researchers speculate that he favored notes he could hear better as he became more deaf

By Denise Mann
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 21 (HealthDay News) -- Ludwig van Beethoven was arguably one of the most influential classical music composers of all time, yet he was deaf by the end of his career.

Now, new research in the Dec. 20 issue of BMJ suggests that the progression of his deafness may have shaped his musical style.

Researchers from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands analyzed three styles of Beethoven's compositions. In a letter to his doctor in 1801, Beethoven first mentioned his hearing loss. He began to communicate through writing in notebooks in 1818, and researchers believe he was deaf by 1825.

As Beethoven developed high-frequency hearing loss, the famed composer began to favor middle- and low-frequency notes that he could hear better during performances. This taps into the "auditory feedback loop," the ability to hear your own words or, in this case, music, the researchers explained.

After a time, Beethoven no longer composed music that he could hear. Instead, the researchers speculated, he returned to his inner musical world and composed music that was more reflective of his earlier compositions.

"What we did was to chart the use of high notes in small subsets of his compositions [excerpts of string quartets], speculating that if one is unable to use high notes it may be more prone not to use them if relying on auditory feedback," explained study author Edoardo Saccenti, a postdoctoral research fellow with the Biosystems Data Analysis Group at the Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences at the University of Amsterdam.

While interesting, the article is highly speculative, noted Dr. Thomas Balkany, director of the University of Miami Ear Institute. "There is no formal hearing testing presented to determine the degree or frequencies of hearing loss," he said. What's more, the autopsy findings do not shed light on the issue.

That said, "the most interesting issue is the composition of some of our most wonderful music in the absence of hearing," Balkany said.

Dr. Guy Petruzzelli, vice chair of otolaryngology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said that Beethoven likely had a form of progressive congenital hearing loss. "This is a really fascinating article," he said. "Originally, Beethoven's hearing was OK and then he began to experience high-frequency hearing loss so he began to use lower tones more and more often that he could hear."

The message is clear, Petruzzelli noted. "We shouldn't be limited in terms of what we aspire to be or do based on our physical limitations," he said.

More information

For more information on how humans hear, visit the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

SOURCES: Guy Petruzzelli, M.D., professor and vice chair, otolaryngology, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago; Thomas J. Balkany, M.D., professor and director, University of Miami Ear Institute, Miami; Edoardo Saccenti, postdoctoral research fellow, Biosystems Data Analysis Group, Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences, University of Amsterdam; Dec. 20, 2011, BMJ, online

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