BEETHOVEN: How does Beethoven’s music sound so good when he was supposedly deaf? Was it simply him figuring out what notes would sound good together?

PHILIP RICE answers:

Not “supposedly deaf”. DEAF! Here’s the thing. When you know enough music theory and have been around the block, and are one of the most talented musicians in history…. You look, or write notes on a page and know EXACTLY what it “sounds like”. This is called hearing a score in silence in your head. Actually, many, if not most great composers develop this ability. Not to mention most good to great conductors.

If you can’t look at a score and “hear it in your head” you are pretty much lacking the skills needed to be either. It’s called being able to read music. Of course there are some very complicated scores out there that the conductor will want to study parts of them while playing the piano…. Just to make sure. Conductors and composers are looking at a bunch of different instrumental parts written in many different keys at same time. For example, strings play their instruments in the key of C, just like the piano. (Except violas, or cellos at times, along with the others when a “clef” can change.) What about clarinets, who can “see” their parts on the page in the keys of B flat, A, or E flat, just to name a few.

How about the poor horn and trumpet sections? In Romantic era and before, they are transposing the correct pitch in their heads, which can change, even within one movement, all the time. When you hit “Middle C” on the piano, you pretty much expect to hear what you are going to hear. EVERY SINGLE TIME. Not so, for English Horn, other woodwinds and brass instruments.

And the conductor has to look at this mishmash of black ink on the page, and try and figure out what it all SHOULD sound like, if everyone is playing the right notes. Then correct them, if wrong. No. Conducting is Not just standing up there waving your arms while trying to look good. Neither is playing many instruments in the orchestra because they make it look so easy. Likewise, many other professions where the goal is to make it look dirt easy. Hope this helps you understand…uhhh…there’s a Lot going on that doesn’t catch the eye of a casual observer. In many professions, not just music!

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