Da – da – da – DUM… 

The open­ing of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s 1808 Fifth Symphony is arguably the most rec­og­nized four notes in musi­cal history.

It was a vic­to­ry sym­bol for the allies in WWII since the da-da-da-dum (or dot-dot-dot-dash) rhythm stands for the let­ter “V” in Morse Code.

It was includ­ed on the so-called Golden Record, an inter­stel­lar mix­tape curat­ed by Carl Sagan and shot into space, now well past our solar sys­tem and some­where out there, in a galaxy far, far away.

Judd Nelson famous­ly whis­tled The Fifth in The Breakfast Club.

Beethoven the St. Bernard barked it in the movie named for him.

And who could for­get Walter Murphy’s 1977 dis­co instru­men­tal “A Fifth of Beethoven”? It was a sta­ple at Tommy’s Roller Rink, the Winchester place to be in the ear­ly ’80s. When A Fifth of Beethoven came blar­ing over the loud­speak­er, you got out of the way unless you could skate back­wards like a boss. 

Yet while it is clear­ly his most rec­og­nized work, I would argue it’s not his best work. That hon­or is reserved for Symphony No. 9, com­posed 16 years after the Fifth. 

Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770. Around age 26, he start­ed to lose his hear­ing, prob­a­bly from drink­ing cheap wine that had been for­ti­fied with lead. Afraid his musi­cal career would end if peo­ple knew his secret, he con­tin­ued per­form­ing and com­pos­ing, even as his hear­ing grew worse. He devised ways to cope. He car­ried an ear trum­pet. He banged hard­er on the piano, get­ting kicked out of numer­ous apart­ments when he didn’t real­ize what a rack­et he was rais­ing play­ing at max­i­mum volume. 

As his hear­ing grew worse, he lost more and more notes in the high­er fre­quen­cy. Since the hair cells that per­ceive low-fre­quen­cy sounds are locat­ed near the top of the ear’s cochlea, hear­ing loss typ­i­cal­ly occurs at high­er fre­quen­cies first. Beethoven respond­ed by cre­at­ing com­po­si­tions with more bass notes and few­er high notes, com­pos­ing only in fre­quen­cies that he could hear. The Fifth Symphony was writ­ten dur­ing this peri­od, com­posed in a dark and omi­nous C minor.

The vol­ume knob on Beethoven’s life was turned ever down­ward until there was noth­ing left. But when God clos­es a door, he opens a window.

With no audi­to­ry feed­back what­so­ev­er, Beethoven had to rely sole­ly on his imag­i­na­tion to com­pose. And it is no acci­dent that the word imag­i­na­tion con­tains the root for the word mag­ic

Rather than hold­ing him back, his com­plete hear­ing loss lib­er­at­ed him from the dis­trac­tions of par­tial hear­ing loss. He was no longer held only to the low­er fre­quen­cy notes. He couldn’t hear any of the notes, so he could only imag­ine the com­po­si­tion, lead­ing to music that would define him as one of the great­est com­posers in musi­cal history.

Once Beethoven decid­ed to lean ful­ly into his dis­abil­i­ty, his high notes returned and his com­po­si­tions flour­ished. And so the Ninth Symphony, writ­ten when Beethoven was com­plete­ly deaf, stands as his most tow­er­ing achieve­ment. Symphony No. 9 is one of the first sym­phonies to include voic­es. It was longer and more com­plex than any sym­pho­ny to date, requir­ing the largest orches­tra Beethoven had ever worked with. 

The Ninth is Beethoven’s most nuanced work, alter­nat­ing between dark minor keys and joy­ous major keys. Because life – like music – needs com­plex­i­ty. We need the lows to bet­ter appre­ci­ate the highs. One with­out the oth­er is tedious and dull.

When the Ninth debuted, Beethoven stood on stage and “con­duct­ed,” although the musi­cians had been instruct­ed to ignore him and fol­low the actu­al con­duc­tor. As the orches­tra got to the choral sec­tion in the final move­ment, adapt­ed from the Friedrich Schiller poem Ode to Joy, the audi­ence broke into applause. Beethoven, many bars off of the actu­al music at this point, remained unaware and con­tin­ued wav­ing his arms about until some­one turned him around. As the audi­ence knew he could not hear their applause, they instead threw their hats and hand­ker­chiefs in the air. Then they did it again. Again. Five stand­ing ova­tions in all. 

There is mag­ic in imag­i­na­tion. Feeling cre­ativ­i­ty stuck? Turn up the Ninth and let the inspi­ra­tion roll.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.