Music and math: The genius of Beethoven

By Murray Bourne, 03 Oct 2014

Ludwig van Beethoven suffered from deafness in his later years, and wrote much of his grandest music without every hearing it properly.

How is it possible for a composer to write music, without being able to hear it? This video attempts to answer that question.

The video is actually the opening motivation for a TEDEd lesson, Music and math: The genius of Beethoven, by Natalya St. Clair. The introduction on that says:

How is it that Beethoven, who is celebrated as one of the most significant composers of all time, wrote many of his most beloved songs while going deaf? The answer lies in the math behind his music. Natalya St. Clair employs the "Moonlight Sonata" to illustrate the way Beethoven was able to convey emotion and creativity using the certainty of mathematics.

Well, maybe.

I fear this is a case of "mathematizing" something which is not very mathematical in the first place. Don't get me wrong - I agree there are a lot of mathematical concepts behind writing music. (See Music and Transformation Geometry where I outline some of these ideas.) And it's certainly true that once Beethoven settled the main themes of his music, the rest of it would follow as a consequence of the agreed structure of that type of music. For example, symphonies were usually made up of 4 movements, where each movement had a certain speed, and key changes occurred in predictable, and relatively set patterns, which were fairly geometrical in nature.

But the key thing that's missing in this video is that "real" composers hear it all in their mind, before anything appears on paper. Not much mathematics involved in that.

But with that in mind, on with the show.

What do you think? Feel free to add your comments below.

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