A Heartfelt Sonata

Beethoven's music may reflect his potential heart problems like arrhythmia


Moonlight captured Beethoven’s heart, but it could have been his heart’s rhythm that affected his music.

According to a new study, Ludwig van Beethoven’s music could mirror the patterns of the composer’s own irregular heartbeat.

This study, written by music historians, musicologists and doctors, including a cardiologist, suggests that the condition of cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, could have guided the rhythms and pacing of Beethoven’s music.

"When your heart beats irregularly from heart disease, it does so in some predictable patterns," said Joel Howell, MD, PhD, of the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, in a press release. “We think we hear some of those same patterns in his music.”

Beethoven has been previously suspected of having a heart condition, Dr. Howell and team noted. They set out to show this by studying his music and comparing it to the breathing patterns and heartbeats of heart patients.

These researchers studied three of Beethoven’s works and found that fluctuating rhythms, changing of keys and differences in pacing sounded similar to breathing and heartbeat patterns in those with heart problems.

Beethoven might have had numerous illnesses, such as "chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, chronic respiratory illness, depression, and alcohol abuse," according to a past article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Beethoven’s most well-known health problem was likely his deafness, which began when he was 30 and settled in completely by 49, reports the Los Angeles Times. According to Dr. Howell and colleagues, losing his hearing might have given Beethoven a greater awareness of his heartbeat.

One example these researchers presented was Beethoven’s instruction to play a part of one of his pieces, the "Cavatina," in his String Quartet in B Flat Major, Opus 130, as "beklemmt," or "heavy of heart."

According to Dr. Howell and team, this heaviness could literally mean pressure on the heart. The Los Angeles Times reports that Jonathan Biss, a pianist, had once noted "that the section always evoked a sensation of shortness of breath."

"The arrhythmic quality of this section is unquestionable," Dr. Howell and colleagues wrote.

In another piece, the Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat Major, the keys played by the left hand sound like rapid tachyarrhythmia, or rapid heartbeat, while the right hand reflects dyspnea, or shortness of breath, "which would not be an unusual sensation for someone experiencing a tachyarrhythmia," Dr. Howell and team wrote.

These researchers emphasized that this is just a hypothesis, and that irregular patterns are also found in other composers’ music. However, their findings could add a new dimension to Beethoven’s masterpieces.

"While these musical arrhythmias may simply manifest Beethoven's genius, there is a possibility that in certain pieces his beating heart could literally be at the heart of some of the greatest masterpieces of all time," said lead study author Zachary D. Goldberger, an assistant professor of cardiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

This research was published in the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine.