Hearing Beethoven – Revisited

Robert Traynor
December 27, 2011

A few months ago Hearing International had a two-part series on the great composer, Beethoven. Beethoven was also famous for composing masterpieces despite having a significant progressive hearing impairment that progressed as he aged. It is reported that there were complications of the impairment, such as tinnitus and other issues that even made this task more difficult.  There are numerous web sites that present Beethoven’s life, loves, music, and his hearing impairment.  In our Part I analysis at Hearing International, we discussed his life as well as the frustration as a result of the hearing impairment as he expressed in letters to various friends and relatives. Huxtable (2011) describes Beethoven’s hearing loss specifically as a loss of the ability to hear high-pitched sounds, an indication of “nerve deafness” (audiologists would refer to this as sensori-neural hearing impairment), that first became apparent at about age 27.  By then, he had written his First Symphony, the first two piano concertos, the piano trios of Opus 1 and Opus 11, the piano sonatas of Opus 13, the cello sonatas of Opus 5, and most of the work on the string quartets of Opus 18. He did not admit to his deafness for another three years until he wrtoe to a friend in 1801 about the frustration of he experienced due to the hearing impairment.  Part I of our story is available in its entirely at : https://hearinghealthmatters.org/hearinginternational/2011/hearing-beethoven-part-i/

In Part II, Hearing International reviewed the literature about his hearing impairment, drawing on a host of web sites.  Huxtable (2011) summed up the medical evidence stating that the cause of Beethoven’s deafness is essentially unknown, as is the case with many instances of progressive deafness today. Lack of specific knowledge, however, has not prevented the growth of an extensive body of literature in which various causes of Beethoven’s condition have been advanced with varying degrees of certitude.  Diagnoses have included syphilis, otosclerosis, neuronal atrophy, proliferative meningitis, labyrinthitis, chronic adhesive middle ear catarrah, Paget’s disease of bone, otitis media, neuritis acoustica, and hyperparathyroidism. Huxtable (2011)further cites a 19th century autopsy that found that his Eustachian tube was narrowed and the auditory nerves atrophied. The latter finding confirms that he had “nerve deafness”, but does not indicate the specific cause.  Although the arteries to the ear were narrowed, vascular insufficiency would have produced middle ear deafness rather than “nerve deafness” (or high tone loss).  Part II of the Hearing International analysis can be fully reviewed at: https://hearinghealthmatters.org/hearinginternational/2011/hearing-beethoven-part-ii-the-medical-conclusion/

In the past few days,  Saccenti et al . (2011) of the University of Amsterdam published research suggesting that Beethoven may have composed his music differently as the hearing impairment progressed. As he aquired more hearing loss, he was less able to hear high frequencies and the researchers note that he reduced his emphasis on high notes in his compositions.  Saccenti and his colleagues charted the use of high notes in small subsets of his compositions [excerpts of string quartets]. They speculated that if a composer relied on auditory feedback, he would be prone not to use high notes if he could not hear them.  

According to Smith (2011), the Saccenti group actually counted the number of notes above 1568 Hz written for the first violin and calculated this number as a percentage of all the notes present in Beethoven’s music. They then grouped the works into four time periods:  1778 to 1800 (probably before the hearing impairment), 1805-06, 1810-11 (as it progressed and became severe), and 1824 to 1826 (when it was probably profound).  The compositions from these time periods differ in the number of high-frequency notes included in the composition. Specifically, the Saccenti et al (2011) found that the early quartets opus 18  comprised of about 8% high notes. In 1805, when Beethoven had reported difficulty hearing woodwinds, his opus 59 written at that time contained about 5% high notes.  His Quartets, opus 74 and 95, comprised less than 2% high notes and were written when Beethoven is said to have stuffed cotton in his ears because of unpleasant buzzing sounds. Shortly thhereafter, his visitors had to shout to be understood and Beethoven started using ear trumpets.  However, in 1825, after it is agreed that Beethoven 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 4%.

  Beethoven’s impairment in varying stages is documented by letters to friends and relatives (Prevot, 2001).  In 1801, he described his hearing loss to a friend and according to other letters he began to communicate by writing in notebooks in 1818, and researchers believe he was deaf by 1825.  That would correlate with the time periods during which differences in his compositions occurred.  After analysis of the three different styles, Saccenti et al. (2011) concluded that after a time, Beethoven could no longer hear any of the music he composed.  Mann (2011) cites Dr. Thomas Balkany, a University of Miami otologist, as finding the Saccenti et al. article interesting, but highly speculative. Balkany points out that no formal hearing testing was presented to determine the degree or frequencies of Beethoven’s hearing loss. What’s more, he notes, the autopsy findings do not shed light on the issue. That said, Balkany adds that the most interesting issue is Beethoven’s ability to compose some of the most wonderful music ever written without any hearing.

In our Hearing International articles we passed on the opinion of various web sites that Beethoven’s musical style and compositions were possibly associated with his hearing impairment. But we totally agree with Dr. Balkany! Check out the Researchers’ video from the University of Amsterdam which summarizes the study and offers some examples of the differences in his compositions, its really worth the 8 1/2 minutes.





Huxtable, R., (2011). Beethoven:  A life of sound and Silence,  Molecular Interventions, Retrieved from the World Wide Web, May 4 2011: http://molinterv.aspetjournals.org/content/1/1/8.full

Mann, D. (2011). Did Beethoven’s hearing loss shape his compositions?  Healthy Day News.  Retrieved December 27, 2011:  http://www.philly.com/philly/health/136014058.html

Saccenti, E.; Smilde, A. & Saris, W. (2011).  Beethoven’s deafness and his three styles.  BMJ 2011;343:d7589.  Retrieved December 27, 2011:  http://www.bmj.com/content/343/bmj.d7589

Saccenti, E.; Smilde, A. & Saris, W. (2011).  Beethoven’s deafness and his three styles.  You Tube Video.  Retrieved December 27, 2011:  http://www.bmj.com/multimedia/video/2011/12/21/beethovens-deafness-and-his-three-styles

Smith, R. (2011). Beethoven’s hearing loss linkedto lack of high frequency notes in his music:  research.  The Telegraph.  Retrieved December 27, 2011: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8967711/Beethovens-hearing-loss-linked-to-lack-of-high-notes-in-his-music-research.html

Traynor, R. (2011).  Hearing Beethoven: Part I.  Hearing Health and Technology Matters.  Hearing International.  Retrieved December 27, 2011:  https://hearinghealthmatters.org/hearinginternational/2011/hearing-beethoven-part-i/

Traynor, R. (2011).  Hearing Beethoven:  Part II.  Hearing Health and Technology Matters.  Hearing International.  Retrieved December 27, 2011:  https://hearinghealthmatters.org/hearinginternational/2011/hearing-beethoven-part-ii-the-medical-conclusion/

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