What a deaf composer can teach us about sound

what a deaf composer can teach us about sound

On a Viennese winter’s night in 1808, audiences listened to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 for the first time. The first movement started out with 4 haunting notes in C minor: da-da-da-dunnn. Those ubiquitous four notes heralded Beethoven’s journey from darkness into light, culminating in the final movement with the happier-sounding key of C major. He reportedly called those four beginning notes, “fate knocking at the door.” Already in his mid-30’s, his hearing was on its way out.

Despite this challenge, Beethoven was a prolific freelancer: he sold his musical creations directly to publishers and didn’t work for the wealthy as most other composers did at the time. That allowed him to explore music, taking risks he never would have been able to pursue, and infused more variety into his creations. He decidedly expressed his innermost soul through his compositions. Ultimately, by age 44, he was clinically deaf, and yet he continued to produce marvelous works of orchestrated music, all influenced by his odyssey of hearing, ending in silence.

Beethoven’s fate as a composer can teach us a lot about the value of music, sound, the role it plays in our modern lives, and its potential to heal.

How well could Beethoven hear? How well can YOU hear?

Before we talk more about Beethoven’s hearing, let’s put it in the context of the normal human range of hearing. You’ll be able to see what’s possible, test your own hearing, and understand more of what was happening to Beethoven.

The normal human hearing spectrum is anywhere from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Sounds below 20 Hz are “infrasounds,” and above 20,000 Hz they are “ultrasounds.” Incredibly, dogs and cats can hear up to 45,000 Hz.

At birth, human infants with normal hearing are able to hear the full range of sounds on the human sound spectrum. But hearing those upper frequencies diminishes for everyone by the age of 18. Around that time, it’s very difficult for most people to hear sounds above 17,400 Hz. By the time a person reaches age 40, 15,000 Hz is the new threshold. Over age 50, anything over 12,000 Hz can be difficult to hear.

decibles - sound level of conversation

Hertz and Decibels

What exactly are hertz (Hz)? These are a form of measurement for frequency. Note this is not a measure of volume; we’ll get to that in a moment. Another term for frequency you may be familiar with is “pitch.” Frequency refers to the number of times per second that a sound pressure wave repeats itself, or oscillates. Higher frequencies have more oscillations. Conversely, lower frequencies have less. Because lower frequencies have fewer wavelengths, they can travel farther than higher frequencies in the same amount of time.

Those wavelengths can be taller or shorter. This is what is known as amplitude, or, the relative strength of sound waves perceived as loudness. Decibels (dB) measure this perceived loudness. The sound of normal human breathing is about 10 dB. Human conversation runs about 60-70 dB. A symphony orchestra, if you’re really close (or even in the orchestra) is about 110 dB - pretty loud, and most will need ear protection (or a plexiglass shield). Any sound over 85 dB over a sustained period of time can cause irreparable damage to the hair cells in the inner ear. So if you like your loud booming music in the car, you might turn it down a few notches, lest you start noticing upper frequency hearing loss at an earlier age than normal.

Want to test your own hearing?

You can see how well you can hear with this test below. We recommend using headphones. Do not turn the volume very high. If you try it with and later without headphones, there is a marked difference in what you’ll be able to hear in the upper frequency range.

Beethoven’s Hearing

Starting in his mid-20s, Beethoven started hearing buzzing and crackling sounds in his ears. It was likely tinnitus, which is usually a symptom of something else such as age-related hearing loss. Physicians at the time could only do so much for him. This frightened the composer as the ability to hear was a key part of his career.

By the time he reached his mid-30s, Beethoven had trouble hearing high-pitched opera voices, as well as the higher frequencies generated by musical instruments. He also had trouble listening to soft conversations. This suggests that both low dB and high frequency sounds were absent from Beethoven’s hearing range at this time. Sounds needed to be lower (Hz) and louder (dB) for him to hear.

By age 44, Beethoven was deaf. Notably, his compositions toward the end of his life had a larger number of lower, deeper notes and sounds. Can you see why?

How could Beethoven compose music despite not being able to hear?

Indeed, Beethoven still went on to write more symphonies as his hearing loss became more acute. His hearing loss was complete by the time he composed another of his most famous pieces, “Symphony No. 9,” which includes the well-known “Ode to Joy” in the final movement. It was one of the most complex pieces of music ever composed up to that point, utilizing both the trombone and opera singers for the final movement - something that had never been done before.

Triplets and Harmonics

Beethoven certainly had an advantage over the average citizen: he often said he could see the music in his mind and that he “followed the lines.” He often employed the use of “triplets” - notes in groups of three due to their melodic tones. Interestingly, these different frequencies created geometry. If you analyze the sine waves for the sounds of the triplets that he employed, for example, their wavelengths intersect at regular intervals. Now, we can’t say for sure if Beethoven actually thought about mathematical sine waves or the geometric series they created, but he routinely referenced seeing musical patterns without actually hearing the music.

Triplets also create a harmonic pattern of music. For example, a D major triplet includes D, F# and A: harmonic notes. Beethoven understood how harmonic patterns worked with regard to triplets. These harmonic sounds are also known as “consonance.” However, he also used “dissonance” - notes that don’t seem to go as well together - to create friction and emotion in his music. And the world appreciated it.

Destroying Pianos

Aside from understanding harmonics, Beethoven reportedly also “felt” the sounds. He used several techniques - that are not uncommon for people who are hard of hearing even in modern times - to feel the vibrations of the music.

First, he often would hold a pencil in his mouth and rest it on his piano to feel the sound vibrations against his lips. He could feel lower notes (and therefore lower frequencies) more clearly. But this action, of course, did not destroy a piano. No, he went to much greater extremes.

Evidently, Beethoven destroyed more than a few pianos in his efforts to feel sound vibrations. Sometimes he banged on the keys with such force that they would break (either the keys themselves or the strings inside the piano). Perhaps not surprisingly, he was known to cut off the legs of at least some of his pianos so that the sound vibrations would travel through the floor and into his barefoot feet. He would also walk around barefoot, allowing his feet to sense sound vibrations moving through the floor.

All these techniques allowed him to continue creating his masterpieces. His hearing status remained largely unknown to the public.

old piano and music as example for beethoven using sound

Music Therapy

Beethoven’s experience shows us that even people who are hearing impaired can participate in and enjoy music. In fact, modern therapies for the deaf can include music therapy. People who are hard of hearing can sense the sound in similar ways as Beethoven once did. They can feel the sound vibrations in instruments that they play, or can feel the surface of different instruments to help them “hear.”

You might see musicians who are hearing impaired walk around barefoot. As in Beethoven’s case, they can feel sound vibrations through the floor or ground. Additionally, balloons or loudspeakers can amplify the vibrations to enable feeling. Sometimes a deaf person has no visual input with regard to the music they’re experiencing. Perhaps they do not have a direct line of sight to the musician whose music they are trying to experience, and so vibration becomes critically important. Being able to feel the vibrations through the floor, the chair they’re sitting in, or with tools like balloons or loudspeakers can greatly enhance their experience.

Whether we can hear or not, all of us experience music and sound on a physical level. Those deep tones are the very ones you feel in your core. It’s a profound and familiar vibration. We all can especially feel this when we’re near drums or in a drum circle. And drums are one of those sounds that are really good for you.

Finally, music therapy benefits hearing and non-hearing students alike: it has the power to enhance linguistic and cognitive brain development. If you have ever been to a concert or a symphony orchestra, you’ll agree that there is a lot going on: from vibrations and sounds to watching the musicians to lighting and emotion, there is much for the brain to take in and process. Not hearing with the ears does not mean the whole body won’t benefit from music and sound. In fact, it does!

beethoven quote on music and sound

You can benefit from sound, even if you can’t hear it?

You’ve seen how Beethoven benefitted from feeling vibrations to create his sonatas and symphonies. But there is another level of experiencing frequency that even Beethoven wasn’t aware of, but which he experienced, as do all people.

The fascia system

Inside the human body, indeed all mammals, is a network of flexible connective tissue called the fascia. It is primarily composed of collagen, running from head to toe. It connects muscle to nerves, to blood vessels, to organs, to the brain, and more. Interestingly, the fascia system aligns with the acupuncture meridians known so well in Eastern medicine and is reliably a carrier of energy.

Because of the nature of its structure, the fascia stabilizes the internal organs of the body, and encapsulates muscles and organs. It also carries bioelectric signals using body fluids to provide information about the health status of the body. It is an interconnected, whole-body system that can impact other body systems when it’s not in its healthiest state. A strained muscle, for example, not only affects the muscle itself, but also the fascia surrounding it, and even more distant parts of the body due the systemic nature of this network. The fascia is a critically important body system.

The fascia system is known to respond to treatments that use vibration to loosen areas that are too tight, to release pain or pressure. Because this network is interconnected, therapies such as vibrational fascia release, that focus on loosening the fascia in specific areas of the body, can help not only the muscles in the immediate area, but also the entire body system. If you have ever had tired, sore feet, you know how exhausting it can feel on the whole body. Loosening the fascia in the foot, for example, will help the legs, back and the upper body, and perhaps even help stave off chronic headaches.

massaging foot to help loosen fascia

The piezoelectric response

As you now know, the fascia network is capable of carrying bioelectric signals – energy – to different areas of the body. Essentially, this is called a piezoelectric response in which the network generates electrical signals. These signals are what contribute to information exchange in the body, coordination of movement, and regulation of all body systems connected to the fascia. What you might not know is that the fascia system generates light energy.

Biological systems regularly emit weak light energy, not visible to the eye. These weak light signals are known as ultraweak biophoton emissions (or UBEs). Scientists believe that DNA is likely the primary source of UBEs. An actual electromagnetic field is generated with positive and negative polarity in the body. This polarity creates vibrations and your body’s cells entrain not only to these vibrations, but vibrations that your body feels via the fascia.

When it comes to HUSO, the healing frequencies directly affect the fascia due to the quartz crystals from the pads or harmonizers sending beneficial healing vibrations directly through acupuncture meridians. As you have learned, the fascia and acupuncture meridians carry energy. HUSO sound frequencies seep into tissue and cells, creating a resonant vibration. Because the fascia system is a whole-body network, the entire system will resonate with the introduction of these human sound frequencies. The entire body entrains to these healing vibrations, promoting healing on a deep cellular level.

The overall state of your health influences how much light is actually emitted via the fascia. Hypothyroidism, for example, will cause the body to emit less UBEs, likely related to the lack of energy patients experience. Other ailments, such as multiple sclerosis or tumor growth, contributes to a higher release of UBEs. Relaxed mental states, foods high in antioxidants, deep breathing, and experiencing beneficial frequencies through HUSO, all help to regulate the amount of UBEs released, allowing the body to rebalance and return to a state of wellness.

Unfortunately for Beethoven, there is evidence that he had multiple body systems that were starting to fail by the time he reached his 50s. The benefits of his sound vibration techniques likely allowed him to carry on as long as he did. The vibrations he felt so fully not only helped him continue his career, but also more than likely stabilized his body systems. No doubt he would have benefited from actual sound frequency therapy to calm his fascia and promote healing.

beethoven on music and soundWhat actually happened to Beethoven and how can you prevent your own hearing loss?

Beethoven’s ailments

An autopsy following Beethoven’s death revealed that he had elevated levels of lead in his system. This is one factor that can lead to hearing loss. In Beethoven’s time, it was common to add lead to wine to help sweeten it, though the practice of sweetening wine in this way was illegal. Adding further insult to injury, wine goblets often had lead in their construction, leading to a double whammy of lead exposure.

But it’s more complicated than that for our poor composer. According to analysis of locks of his hair found much later, he also likely suffered from alcoholism, manifesting in cirrhosis of the liver, renal papillary necrosis (decreased kidney function leading to kidney failure), pancreatitis (reduced function in the pancreas gland which produces glucagon and insulin), and there is some evidence he also had diabetes.


hearing and sound test using tuning fork

Preserving your hearing

What can you learn from Beethoven’s health mishaps? First, if you ever hear prolonged buzzing in your ears, get your hearing checked. Unfortunately, if you’re over the age of 65, you have a 30% chance of experiencing age-related hearing loss due to changes in the inner ear and genetics. But you can give yourself the best chance at retaining your hearing by avoiding loud noises as much as possible, and not listening to headphones too loudly. If at all possible, don’t wait too long to see a doctor for medical concerns, especially when it comes to ear infections.

Regarding Beethoven’s other ailments, overconsumption of alcohol is harmful for your health and is best avoided. Moreover, steer clear of smoking as it presents a host of negative health effects. Consuming as many healthful foods as you can will help prevent or improve ailments like diabetes. Managing diabetes helps mitigate other health concerns, like renal papillary necrosis. Taking too many over-the-counter medications can lead to harmful effects, especially to the kidneys over time. Striving to hydrate your body as much as possible throughout life is ideal, as well.

Luckily, lead is less of a problem in modern times. We no longer allow the sale of lead-based paint, or leaded gasoline. Nor do we put lead into dishes from which we might eat. Unfortunately, lead can be present in ground soil and even tiny amounts can be detrimental to children whose bodies are still developing. Of course, many countries around the world continue to work to mitigate the presence of lead and so lead poisoning levels continue to decrease.

Beethoven was a brilliant composer. His masterpieces have shaped the way people experience music, even centuries later. His deafness didn’t stop him from creating wonderfully harmonic compositions that were pleasing to the ear. He benefited from the vibrations he generated as he composed his music. More modern knowledge allows us the ability to understand and avoid the health pitfalls that plagued this musical genius. To be sure, centuries after his death, he is still teaching us new things.

Want more tips on finding some calm in your life? Download our free guide, "How to Live Stress-free in a Stress-filled World"

About Cynthia Calhoun

Cynthia is freelance graphic and web designer for HUSO. She enjoys designing things of all kinds, content marketing, email marketing and more.