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Member Research and Reports

Michigan Study: Could a Cardiac Arrhythmia Have Influenced Beethoven’s Famous Works?

Could it be that when Ludwig van Beethoven composed some of the greatest masterpieces of all time that he was quite literally following his heart?

HowellJ
[Photo: Dr. Joel Howell]

The striking rhythms found in some of Beethoven’s most famous works may have been inspired by his own heartbeat, says a team of researchers from the University of Michigan and University of Washington that includes a cardiologist, medical historian, and musicologist.

Authors of an essay that appears in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine analyzed several of Beethoven’s compositions for clues of a heart condition some have speculated he had. The rhythms of certain parts of renowned works, researchers say, may in fact reflect the irregular rhythms of Beethoven’s own heart caused by cardiac arrhythmia.

“His music may have been both figuratively and physically heartfelt,” says co-author Dr. Joel Howell, a professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and professor of Health Management and Policy at the School of Public Health. “When your heart beats irregularly from heart disease, it does so in some predictable patterns. We think we hear some of those same patterns in his music.”

“The synergy between our minds and our bodies shapes how we experience the world.  This is especially apparent in the world of arts and music, which reflects so much of people’s innermost experiences,” Dr. Howell adds.

The team studied the rhythmic patterns of several compositions that may reflect Beethoven’s experience of an arrhythmia, a condition that causes the heart to beat too fast, too slow, or with an irregular rhythm. Sudden, unexpected changes in pace and keys in Beethoven’s music appear to match such asymmetrical patterns.

Take for example the final movement “Cavatina” in Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 130, an emotionally charged piece that Beethoven said always made him weep. In the middle of the quartet, the key suddenly changes to C-flat major, involving an unbalanced rhythm that evokes dark emotion, disorientation, and what has even been described as a “shortness of breath.”

In the composer’s directions to musicians playing the piece, the section is marked beklemmt, a German word that translates to “heavy of heart.”

Authors note that “heavy of heart” could mean sadness but may also describe the sensation of pressure, a feeling that is associated with cardiac disease. “The arrhythmic quality of this section is unquestionable,” they write.

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