The first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are unforgettably commanding. Four hammering notes introduce a sprawling orchestral piece that is familiar to just about anyone. But how well do we really know it?
Beethoven actually amended the tempos of all of his symphonies following the invention of the metronome in 1817. The new markings brought the pieces to an almost warp-speed pace that is nearly impossible to play, and by which most composers simply refuse to abide.
Or so admits Alan Pierson, Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, who recently appeared on NPR’s Radio Lab to discuss whether we really know Beethoven and his music as well as we think we do.
In music, something exists called the Indifference Point, which research suggests is the tempo humans naturally follow; tempos outside of this Indifference Point tend to throw humans off. It’s been suggested that Beethoven knew this, and purposely hastened the tempos of his symphonies to keep people on their toes.
“If that is the speed he wanted, it’s a very interesting speed because it’s a tempo almost designed to make us feel uncomfortable. It’s almost designed to disorient us,” said Pierson.
Some conjecture that Beethoven marked his symphonies at such fast tempos to express his own feelings of being an outsider in 19th Century Vienna, but with the intention of future listeners finding his music to be powerful and liberating. At least the latter may be true for many Beethoven enthusiasts. Faster tempos also, very simply, add an exciting new element to a type of music that was, in Beethoven’s time, pretty common. Playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at 108 beats per minute would knock the top hat off any Viennese listener.
Whatever Beethoven’s reasons were for speeding up the tempos of his symphonies, the result goes against the ethos around what classical music should be. His pieces, played at his marked tempos, take listeners right to the edge, and push. It’s likely Beethoven wanted his music to be disruptive and really challenge the players—and the ear—in a way that had not been done before. As the first composer to use the metronome, it seems his mission, if these assumptions are true, was successful.
Disruptive sound may be uncomfortable and contradict some naturally-instilled human tempo, but without this kind of out-of-the-box thinking, we would complacently settle for what is most familiar. Like black box speakers, for example. At ClearView Audio, we’ve taken a page from Beethoven’s book and are disrupting music technology with our revolutionary invisible speaker, Clio, fusing design and technology for a truly new way to listen to your music, no matter what tempo you prefer.