I Think Beethoven Encoded His Deafness in His Music

I usually start practicing piano without my hearing aids. At first, I’m still hearing the music in my head, but after a while, I’m more a...


I usually start practicing piano without my hearing aids. At first, I’m still hearing the music in my head, but after a while, I’m more aware of the choreography, how it feels like a dance in my hands. Focusing on a physical experience that feels good and healthy can counteract bad habits which appear when you are only listening to the sound.

For instance, if one plays a large chord of, say, eight notes, the tendency will be to bring out the lowest note and the highest note — the bass and the melodic note — to give them more audibility and importance. Because of the structure of the hands, this means the weakest fingers are bringing out the most important notes. To help the poor fingers out, the hands will angle out, left hand pointing to the bass, right hand to the melody.

This is a very unnatural position for your hands to be in, and in fact it mimics the wrist-breaking karate locks taught in dojos, inviting injury. Imagine a series of these chords up and down the keyboard, in such an unnatural position. But because you are chasing a full-bodied sound from this eight-note chord, and not paying attention to its physicality, you start to do dangerous things. With the ability to take the sound out of the equation, I focus on the feel. I solidify a good technique first, and know it. Knowing it, I can hang onto it once I do put my hearing aids back in, and then work on the sound.

So, ironically, even though we are talking about a sonic art form, sound can be a distraction. Sound can take your attention away from the many other factors that go into making music. Music, after all, is about so much more than volume. For my own loss, I’m just missing volume. I’m not missing everything else one needs to make or enjoy music. And I even have perfect pitch, so in some ways, I hear better than hearing people.

And I think that had to have happened to Beethoven. He learned to create music without sound, however reluctantly. He left a living document of his hearing loss in transition likely starting with music written in his mid to late 20s, when his hearing loss likely began. In other words, I think he encoded his deafness in music. And as I say, the progression in his music is not a perfectly linear one, just as his progression through deafness was likely not perfectly linear, but the journey is there. Unmistakably.

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