Did Beethoven's Hearing Loss Shape His
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
"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,"
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.
For more information on how humans hear, visit the
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
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