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Beethoven & Your Brain Workshop

Daniel Levitin and I have been meeting in various locations these past few weeks putting our Intersections show together. It’s called “Beethoven & Your Brain.” (See it in October in Kitchener-Waterloo or Koerner Hall in Toronto) It’s basically one of many possible ways to look carefully at this great composer’s music and how it works. What we’re finding is that when you look at the effect Beethoven’s music has on us from a biological/neurological/primal level, music becomes less of a “thing” and more of a “process.” And that really, you don’t need to be an expert to experience this music in a profound way.

One of our first exercises was that we sat across from each other at a table and wrote 10-minute blurbs on what we knew about. I wrote about “Beethoven” and Daniel wrote about “Brain.” It’s interesting to see where our ideas intersect. Here are the blurbs.


What’s great about LvB?

I think it’s extraordinary the way LvB grabs the listener with his music. There’s a sense of profound emotion, human drama — even to the point of violence — in his music. Somehow when you listen to a work like the Fifth Symphony you immediately know that the emotional stakes are very high. He does this by creating a sense of momentum and turbulence in his music that can still shake up audiences hundreds of years later. There are so many kinds of music in life that one might call “polite:” music that soothes us and makes us comfortable and happy. But Beethoven’s music is not polite; it is full of fervent questioning and takes nothing for granted. He stretches form, structure, and even sound to the absolute limit. So if you know a lot about classical music you get the sense that he almost wants to destroy it. If you don’t know about classical music, you still get the sense of drama and urgency through its sheer physicality.

Take the beginning of the Fifth Symphony for instance. Though we all know how it goes, those first few notes retain their ability to shock. That’s because Beethoven writes an indeterminate hold – a fermata – on the fourth note of his famous statement. How long this note should be held is left to the conductor. There are many other such moments in the piece. But underlying it all is a tremendous pulse and groove that counteracts the instability. It is Beethoven’s ability to balance the predictable and the unstable in just the right way that makes him great.

When I conduct Beethoven’s music, more than any other composer’s, it is as if I can feel his spirit reaching out to me. Though we know that he had a difficult, irascible personality, he craves an intimate connection with his listeners through his music. He felt that his deafness prevented him from being him from being intimate with others. Yet for one hundred and fifty years he has made profound connections with countless listeners. It’s uncanny, like this poem by Keats.

This Living Hand

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.



Expectation is everything in music. The brain is a giant prediction device. Whether we realize it or not – whether we’re aware of it or not – it’s working hard to figure out what’s going to happen next. There’s an obvious evolutionary/adaptive advantage to this – if a lion is in the area, you need to be able to accurately predict which direction he’s headed. If a potential mate is looking at you a certain way, you have to know whether this means “come hither” or “get lost” (or “not now – my boyfriend is watching, but come back later”). In music, we hear a few notes and our brains are already trying to figure out what’s going to come next.
A “good” piece of music rewards those expectations by meeting them at least some of the time, but also violates them sometimes in interesting ways. Why? If the music meets all of your expectations, and does exactly what you think it will, it’s boring. We reject as too simple, like “Barney the dinosaur” music.” If it never meets your expectations, never conforms to your predictions, it’s frustrating because you have no frame of reference, no grounding; you’re disoriented. So the job of the composer is to hit that sweet spot, to meet your expectations some of the time, and violate your expectations in interesting ways the rest of the time. When the composer gets that balance just right, you end up liking the piece. And if the composer can complete a musical phrase in a way that sounds better to you than anything you could ever have ever imagined – well, then he’s got you and that’s a piece of music you can enjoy for the rest of your life.
Another aspect to expectation has to do with momentum. Skillful composers set up expectations and momentum, making you want to hear more.

©2010 Daniel J Levitin