Beethoven’s hearing loss may have had an effect on his musical style

New research, published in the British Medical Journal, shows a distinct evolution in Beethoven’s music from his early life through the period of his gradual hearing loss starting in 1801 when he first noted it, until 1825 when he went completely deaf.

A team from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands studied the German composer’s use of high notes throughout his career, paying attention to the fact that he first lost hearing for high frequency notes at the age of 30, and how at that point his compositions began to rely on middle and low frequency notes.

The interesting find was that after he completely lost his hearing he started to compose internally in his head, and the high notes returned into his works.

Study author Edoardo Saccenti noted that “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 music world and earlier composing experiences.”

In 1801 Beethoven first informed his doctor about his hearing issues, writing “For the last three years my hearing has grown steadily weaker . . . I can give you some idea of this peculiar deafness when I must tell you that in the theatre I have to get very close to the orchestra to understand the performers, and that from a distance I do not hear the high notes of the instruments and the singers’ voices.”

Researchers tracked significant milestones of his gradual hearing loss such as the use of an ear trumpet, against many of his works.

Research showed that after he went completely deaf in 1825 he wrote the late string quartets Opus 127 to 135, both of which use high notes liberally.

Saccenti noted that researchers only used selected compositions in the study, so their anaysis shouldn’t be seen as a complete look at the composer’s work: “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.”

Beethoven had a very common form of hearing loss that is easily corrected today with digital hearing aids.