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Composing by Heartbeat

A medical historian, cardiologist and musicologist walk into a room…

It sounds like the set-up to a joke, but a team consisting of a medical historian, cardiologist and musicologist from the University of Michigan and University of Washington theorized that world-renowned composer Ludwig van Beethoven could have suffered from a cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).

Why do they think that? They listened to his music.

Due to Beethoven’s notable deafness, it’s suggested that he was more aware of his heartbeat and used it as an internal metronome. To prove  that, the team examined the rhythm of several of Beethoven’s compositions, and read the tempos as if they were a “musical electrocardiogram.”

Zachary D. Goldberger, first author and assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology at UW School of Medicine said, “We can’t prove or disprove that Beethoven had many of the diseases he’s been supposedly afflicted with because almost all of today’s diagnostic medical tests didn’t exist in the 18th century, and we are interpreting centuries-old medical descriptions into the context of what we know now.”

The sudden changes in pace and key match asymmetrical patterns associated with an irregular heartbeat. For example, in the composition Cavatina, the key quickly changes from a B flat major to a C flat major.

The authors noted: “Together with the unbalanced rhythm, this sudden change evokes a dark emotion and disorientation that some have described as akin to ‘shortness of breath.’ The arrhythmic quality of this section is unquestionable.”

For more examples and to read the full article, follow this link.