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Beethoven’s sketchbook, 1815. Scheide Library. Princeton University. Photographed by Natasha D’Schommer from the book Biblio.

8 min

That Beethoven not only continued to Beethoven but composed his greatest works long after going profoundly deaf is entirely astonishing. Like many astonishing things, it spawned a cottage industry of explanations, most of which are moored in a misunderstanding of how composition works.

Ein Beispiel!

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It’s seductive, this idea that the people we call geniuses in various fields do things in some fundamentally different way. Maybe it’s a way of forgiving ourselves for being non-geniuses, I don’t know. When it comes to explaining a deaf genius composer, the seduction is even greater. We are drawn toward anything that sounds remotely plausible.

The video above implies that Beethoven somehow used a knowledge of mathematical ratios and the physics of sound to compensate for his deafness and achieve greatness. The relationship between music and math and physics is fascinating, and I’ve written about it myself many times. But the implication that understanding the math of musical sound played any role in Beethoven’s ability to compose after going deaf in his thirties is (be nice!)…not true.

Any composer can write music in pin-drop silence, just as any writer of language can do. If I give you a line of poetry:

There once was a man from Nantucket


and ask you to compose the next line in your head, you can do it and write it down without hearing it spoken. The better poet you are, the better the result. You draw on a lifetime of experience with language and an acquired grasp of syntax and semantics, run through a number of options in your head, “hear” what you want mentally, then write it down. Then the process of improving it begins.

Music works much the same way. You write down the kernel of an idea, then realize it’s awful. So you improve it, little by little. If your ears work, you’ll check it at the piano and make adjustments. If they don’t, you play it in your head. This is not magic — after many years of practice and experience, I can do it myself. Beethoven just did it much, much better than I do. He didn’t use math.

One way we know that is from the thousands of pages of his extant sketchbooks.

From the sketches for Beethoven Symphony No. 6

Fascinating things, these sketches. He would start with a nugget of an idea — as often as not some inauspicious turd of a melodic fragment — then cross it out angrily and improve it on the next line, cross that out, improve, etc., until at the bottom of the page you have the fully-realized opening bars of the Pathétique Sonata.

You know what’s missing from the sketchbooks? Equations. In a very real way, the difference between Beethoven and the rest of us is how far down the page of the sketchbook you go before quietly saying “Nailed it” and getting lunch.

Beethoven had a lifetime of experience and an acquired grasp of the syntax and semantics of music, and he used that to create new compositions. What’s amazing is not that he composed after losing his hearing, but that he composed so skillfully without the advantage of testing aurally as he went. That really is hard, but not remotely impossible. Even more amazing is something too seldom mentioned — that Beethoven led a revolution in musical style, creating the Romantic period nearly singlehandedly while deaf. There’s no reason to believe that math, for all its inherent beauty, played any conscious part in that process.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.