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On Beethoven and the Gifts of Silence

Writing in 1801, at the age of 30, Ludwig van Beethoven complained about his diminishing hearing: “from a distance I do not hear the high notes of the instruments and the singers’ voices.”

As Arthur C. Brooks recounts in a 2019 op-ed, published in the Washington Post, Beethoven “raged” against his decline, insisting on performing, pounding pianos to ruin in a futile attempt to hear his own notes. By the age 45, he was completely deaf. He considered suicide, one friend reported, but was held back only by the force of “moral rectitude.”

It’s here that Beethoven’s story veers toward legend. Cut off from the world of sound around him, working only with musical structures dancing through his imagination, at times holding a pencil in his mouth against his piano’s soundboard to feel the consonance of his chords, Beethoven produced the best music of his career, culminating in his incomparable Ninth Symphony, a composition so daringly new that it reinvented classical musical altogether.

“It seems a mystery that Beethoven became more original and brilliant as a composer in inverse proportion to his ability to hear,” writes Brooks.  “But maybe it isn’t so surprising.”

As Brooks elaborates, Beethoven’s diminished hearing limited the influence of “prevailing compositional fashions.” Whereas his earlier work was “pleasantly reminiscent” of his instructor, Josef Haydn, his later work was spectacularly innovative. “Deafness freed Beethoven as a composer because he no longer had society’s soundtrack in his ears.” 

There are multiple lessons lurking in this tale. In his op-ed, Brooks argues that Beethoven teaches us about the rewards that can be cultivated in response to loss; an important message, to be sure.

What struck me, however, was the degree to which silence paradoxically allowed Beethoven to hear something new.

In our current techno-cultural moment, we’re constantly connected to a humming online hive mind of takes and urgency and quantified influence. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told I was missing out because of my absence from this scrum. I needed to “build my brand,” or be exposed to more interesting people and important ideas, or plugged into the tick tock of the big events of the day.

But it’s also clear to me that much of my deepest work came from periods of relative disconnection; when I was living a life defined largely by the demands of my young family, a big stack of books, a deep leather chair, a few hours a week in front of new students on an old university campus, and endless miles walking and thinking — often in the woods.

Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls overlooking palm trees in sleepy Key West. Lincoln pondered the Emancipation Proclamation amidst the relative peace of the Old Soldiers’ Home. Rowling completed the Harry Potter epic ensconced in the opulent quiet of the Balmoral Hotel.

Sometimes, it seems, there’s long term advantage in removing “society’s soundtrack” from your ears, even if in the moment the absence is acute. As Beethoven so vividly demonstrates, you can’t really hear yourself until you’re able to turn down the volume on everyone else.

(Hat tip to Fabrice for sending me the Brooks column.)

53 thoughts on “On Beethoven and the Gifts of Silence”

  1. I love reading your writing, and I thought this was another phenomenal analysis…looking forward to reading your book in March. Keep up the good work! -Lucas

  2. Your article reminds me of some advice I heard back in my university days. When coming across a new problem most people’s instinct is to seek help and see how others have solved it. In university this often takes the form of groups of students sharing answers to problem sets, for example.

    Instead, the advice went, its better to consciously avoid everyone else’s thoughts and ideas. Shut yourself in a room and get as far as you can with the problem yourself. I applied to this to my problem sets and I found I learned a lot more, and also came up with some original solutions that no one else had (the “hive mind” of students generally came to one solution that everyone turned in, with a few tweaks around the edges).

    I think this applies in life more broadly. If you have to work on a problem, whether composing music or writing a book, working alone at first will direct you down a more original path. Following the social crowd makes it easier to get an answer, but the one you get is less original.

  3. Wow, Cal! You totally hit the nail on the head as to what’s happened to me by mostly unplugging while writing my next book.

    This has been the case with me: “…it’s also clear to me that much of my deepest work came from periods of relative disconnection.”

    So thrilled I found you!!!

    It’s been strange since most of my health and wellness colleagues are massively online.

    Oh, I’m mentioning Digital Minimalism in the Recommended Resources section to my next book, I blew my diet! Now what? Will try to track down a way to get the book to you.

  4. Thank you for this piece, Cal. It hit home with some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head.

    It speaks to that idea that the quality of your life is determined by the focus of your thoughts. In the same way that your survival is dependent on access to oxygen, the life-supporting component that keeps us all alive. Without access to oxygen we die. Without a focus for our thoughts, we’re spending our most precious resource, energy and time on thinking that destroys us from the inside out.

    I believe this is what gave Beethoven the ability to be innovative. He pruned the noise so his own music had a chance to breathe.

    • Your comment spoke to me. I am an artist and writer attempting to get back to the hub of my being, to source my thinking from a place so deep within me that it is pure, sweet soul water. It is so true that thoughts without purpose (for me) eat up the minutes of my life and leave only regrets.

    • Perhaps it wasn’t used by the author because, while the song title initially seems apropos, the lyrics don’t speak to his topic or his point.

  5. Loved this.
    It kind of sums up the whole COVID quarantine situation, where we’ve been removed from much of the noise and given this opportunity to THINK in solitude. Of course, not everybody chose to look at it that way, but I fervently hope those who did have moved forward and created something great, either in their life, their thoughts, their outlook or their product.

  6. Hi, I was just wondering what is good way to delete google browser on my android phone. Google Chrome seems to be the rabbit hole. If I can delete google chrome, then I feel that I can use my phone more efficiently.

      • Yes! DuckDuckGo + VPN is the only way to protect your data. Never use any Google or Facebook owned products and delete all non-essential apps from your phone if you are interested in avoiding rabbit holes. Good luck to all those attempting to free themselves from surveillance capitalism.

  7. i’m 22 and this most recent lockdown has been so crazy, especially after having discovered Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, the importance of embracing boredom.

    A concept so alien to me, for since I can remember, I’ve been “plugged in” to something via television or game console or social media. I can’t even remember the last time I’ve had to ‘entertain myself’ for any extended period of time.

    Not to say it hasn’t been EXCRUCIATINGLY frustrating and difficult at times, but this newfound solitude I feel so free from the world and embracing “myself”, and I’m even learning more and more about me, at age 22!

    Its almost feels like a new passion, verve and curiosity has been ignited in me about life. I’m enjoying actually processing my thoughts and playing with them, learning about myself in the process, and my mental models of the world. This simply didn’t happen in any great detail when I’ve been entertained constantly.

    When we go back to “normality”, I don’t think I want to go back. I’m actually excited for the future and the ability to contribute in a meaningful way to it. Thanks for leading the way in that fight, you’re an excellent role model.

    • One more thought about your term “embracing ‘myself’ ” and your experience of deep thinking (a mix of analytic and synthetic thinking – taking thoughts and ideas apart and then putting them together in different ways): use the opportunity to add more reading and blend the two (reading and deep thinking) together. As a compsci/IT professor I have found that so many younger people are so glued to technology (and I am NOT a Luddite!) that they have lost the ability to read books; and books, like the monks’ world mentioned above, can force you to slow down and think deeper, more creatively – the term for it is “contemplation” or even meditative thinking. You are lucky to learn a little of this at 22; as a science-type, I didn’t start into the more creative world until after I turned 50 (although it did build on my undergraduate studies in math/chemistry with German language/literature and theology).

  8. This great post reminded me of two books:

    1) Irvin Yalom’s”When Nietzsche Wept”. This fictional novel with real characters suggests that Nietzsche had their best thinking while he was unable to read, due to his illness. Being unable to read forced him to develop a unique way of thinking.

    2) Biografía del Silencio. Pablo D’Ors is a Spanish priest, zen disciple, theologian and writer. This short book on meditation is really inspired. I think it’s available in English (Biography of Silence).

  9. The times where I have the greatest insights is when I am alone and forced to appreciate the delicate distinctions of what I am working on and to see the beauty in the complex patterns around me. In engineering school, I used to lock myself alone in the library with a pile of engineering books around me solving the toughest problems the textbook could throw at me. My fellow engineering students would come to me and ask “how did you figure this out” because I used to have to go to them for help. After law school, I locked myself away in a cabin to study my bar preparation materials all day to really learn the law. I discovered hidden meanings and rules in plain sight. You can’t appreciate the world with the constant noise of society screaming in your ears. To see what is really important, you have to concentrate on appreciating the meaning of what is in front of you now.

  10. >> living a life defined largely by the demands of my young family, a big stack of books, a deep leather chair, a few hours a week in front of new students on an old university campus, and endless miles walking and thinking — often in the woods.

    Ah, I can’t get enough of the dreamy romance this line evokes in me. Beautiful!

  11. Hi!

    After reading and enjoying much of Cal’s blog and published articles, I’m left with a conundrum. I find his ideas very convincing, lucid, and practical, but struggle to understand how to apply it to myself. His advice seems targeted at two audiences: the young learner or the distracted, older intellectual. As a 32 year old with only a B.A., I read this as a reprimand of sorts. Having spent much of my educational and post college time excelling at and being rewarded for shallow-work (rather than challenging myself), I took time off to reflect on what to do with my career to find more ease and fulfillment. I became acutely aware that the ability to make a career of tireless, faux-productive work will wane quickly as those mental abilities fade with age.

    But what would his ideas suggest someone like me do? There doesn’t seem much room to turn within the sturdy walls of his reasoning. I likely lack the neural plasticity to return back to rigorous postgraduate study. And furthermore, having sojourned away from academic pursuits for a decade, “in what?” also becomes the question. I’m curious what he’d suggest to someone in this situation? Because pushing forward with a career in logistical or quickturn work seems like a surefire path to passion-less struggle. Or have I given his work an overly reductionist reading?

    Writing this in the comments as I know Cal has no general purpose email address.

    • Tyler,

      A few thoughts in response to your post:

      1) It sounds like you are feeling “not young”, but trust me—you are also “not old”! Why do you feel that you will “lack the neural plasticity to return to postgraduate work”? As a 53-yr-old who earned a graduate degree at age 42 and made a career jump which doubled my income at age 45, it seems that you are selling your future self short. True, later on you may no longer be the shining star in the room with the ease that once came to you, but with challenges come growth. You do not have to be Perfect, you just have to give it your best and put one foot in front of the other— if and when you ever feel like going back to school. And trust me, you’ll know if the time is right, because it will become a burning desire! If it’s something you’re just feeling meh about, don’t waste your time on it. (And BTW, I earned my postgraduate degree online, while holding down a full-time job. It was certainly not a diploma mill situation; towards the end, it took every ounce of fortitude I had. Was it worth it? A resounding YES).

      2) Regarding “shallow work”: Can you find a common theme of joy in the jobs you’ve had thus far? What is it, on a day to day basis, that brings you pleasure in your work life? I too, felt like I wasn’t living up to my full potential but didn’t know where to turn. My career at that point felt like just a string of meaningless jobs. Some people seem to love what they DO. For me (in administrative support) it wasn’t so much the jobs themselves that I enjoyed, it was the feeling of helping people, of being useful. Still, it felt like helping people at the level was a small, piddly thing. I felt like I was meant for more, like I was wasting my life. Try to nail down whatever FEELING it is that you enjoy and pursue that. (FYI, I eventually decided to pursue an MPA, as it is a very broad field that offers a vast number of career choices… and now I’m in a position that allows me to help people on a much bigger scope). You sound like more of a thinking-type, but maybe it’s a creative process that you really enjoy. Take an honest look at yourself. Perhaps a trade school is more in order, rather than postgraduate work. (Of course, hands-on courses are trickier to come by these days with Covid, but there’s always YouTube University until things open up again). My point is that you can learn new skills and pursue them after work, part time… even if it’s just an hour or so a day. Eventually, you may become talented enough at those to earn some additional income, and it will bring you fulfillment along the way.

      3) Go out & actively find a mentor. Identify colleagues you admire and respect, and ask them if they would mind talking with you for a few minutes about how they got where they are. If you are open, honest & transparent about your reasons – that you want to better yourself — most people will sense that and offer a few suggestions. If it’s someone you jive with, Boom! A mentorship is born.

      4) Finally: YOU make the rules for your own life. Enjoy the process! Get out of your head and start Doing. If you start now, you’ll be well in your way when you hit 40. What have you got to lose?

      • I came from Guatemala at 24 years of age, learned better English, married at 27, raised our daughter, went back to school when I was 50 years old, graduated as RN. worked on that field, and I loved it until 79 years of age when I retired. I am 81, have loss some of my hearing, now I am reading, writing, drawing, enjoy cooking, learning Hebrew (a new language is good for the mind), occasionally do some crochet and yard work. I enjoyed the article on Beethoven, as I can understand his frustration initially at the loss of his hearing, I use hearing aids, they help, but not much, so I found activities that do well with silence and I am learning more every day.

        • Sounds like you are doing well Estela, it is true that we must adapt to where we are in life and find things to learn and enjoy. I am 41 and finishing my bachelors degree, then on to graduate school (I hope). Learning is the key to a fulfilling life at any age I believe, I look forward to learning more about Hebrew myself in the future.


    • Tyler,

      I think you are possibly limiting your thinking. Are there any skills in your job that you think would advance your career if you got really good at them? Cal has generally talked about deep work being anything that you couldn’t easily train a newly graduated undergrad to do within a few months. I think that if you focused on improving the skills that give you an edge over a new worker, you would be accomplishing the types of goals that Deep Work discusses.

      But the work part is just one aspect of your life, and there may be other roles in your life that would benefit from the Deep Work mindset too, such as becoming a leader in your community or taking a hobby to the next level.

    • I was 35, with a B.S. (that I got after a bunch of years and 4 changes in major) and a couple of interesting jobs in my past, I felt like I needed a change. I realized I didn’t want to level up in the field I was in and spent a few weeks looking into potential career arcs and the education needed to go with them. I pivoted over to educational technology and instructional design and haven’t looked back. I got my M.Ed., I have a good job in the field, and now I’m in the dissertation phase of my PhD.

      You’re absolutely not too old to make the jump to something else if that’s what you actually want to do. Despite being a terrible student during my K-12 and undergrad years, the work ethic that came with being an adult turned me into someone who got a 3.97 GPS in my M.Ed. program and I’ve had no academic problems working towards my PhD. It’s been just over 10 years since I made that decision and I love what I do almost every day.

      • I am most impressed by the high level of thought from the replying group. As a musician and composer, the most frightening thought always was what happens if I lose my hearing. Well, my hearing began to diminish at age 51 and in the 18 years since, it has been both an emotional and aesthetic roller coaster. Not having anything of the talent and genius of Beethoven, I have quietly begun to accept the reality of 30% capacity in hearing in the 500hz to 5000hz range. Most hearing aids are great for speech but few handle the full range of live music.
        Your article is a helpful moment during this COVID-19 isolation. And ironically, I have found great solace in studying the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th. I recommend this exercise of listening to all my friends. My best to all.

    • Tyler,

      Follow your envy. Julia Cameron in her seminal book “The Artists’ Way” says that envy is the quickest way to our buried desires and longing. Who or what creates an envious longing in your heart? That could take you into some interesting directions.

  12. I understand the point. But as everything, there is a right balance to find.
    It seems in history, a few geniuses are changing the paradigm as Thomas Kuhn would say. But mostly, progress is made by the collective intelligence of human groups.
    And a classic advice to get unstuck, is to find a group and being held accountable. Because man is a social animal.
    I think this advice is useful for writing a book, compose a master piece. But not to build a rocket to the moon (or Mars).

    • I partly agree. IMO there are thoughts and ideas that only you can come up with as consequence of practicing solitude with your thoughts. If everyone in your team would do this and reconvene the ability to problem solve highly complex problems would be inmense.

  13. Its all about balance between inside and outside noise.
    I am loosing my hearing gradually
    I learn to cope and try to find my solitude as a jumping
    Peace and quiet are a blessing for an adhd personality
    I do think sometimes that it’s selective hearing issues that took root
    If I look at my life especially Covid time. I found my happy and most creative side.

  14. A very thoughtful take on a unique person and the extraordinary way his circumstances and auditory isolation shaped his work.
    I conclude from your piece and the comments that stepping back from the noise of life (in this instance digital) is as powerful an engine for intuitive leaps of understanding and creativity as embracing the collective joy of collaboration with like minded team members (also not digital).
    Frankly, it was what you said about the period of relative disconnect when you were raising your young family and taking long walks in the woods that struck me hardest. In looking back over many decades of life I see the wisdom in your conclusion. Thank you for this wonderful piece.

  15. You are not too old. I delayed going to college for a few years after high school. I worked in a few different things, some of which I failed at. I worked my way through college. I got my B.A. in something I was passionate about at first but I was lukewarm about when I finally finished college but I got good grades. I did decide that I would not be cut out to be a teacher, although I enjoy researching. That ended my plans for an academic career.

    I had been working in a certain field during and a few years after college. I gained a lot of computer and other skills while working through college. I didn’t want to stay in the field I was in. I was interested in this technical field that at the time was undergoing a lot of change with all of the technological advances of the 1990’s. This change meant that there was a bit of a “Wild West” mentality in that if you seemed to be intelligent and skilled, you could get into it even if you didn’t have the right degree or all of the credentials. I left a job I was in for a long time and I went to work in a temporary job that would give me the skills I needed. I was in my mid-thirties. I then got more stable work as I built my experience. I have been working in a specialized little corner of this industry for over 20 years. Now I am in my fifties. My mind is not as quick or “plastic” as when I was young, but on the other hand I have a lot of experience I can draw on and better judgement than when I was young.

    I suggest that in addition to work, you focus on interests and hobbies that will keep you mentally active. Taking up some interest that is at least somewhat demanding can help you in other areas of your life, including work.

  16. Loved this essay. Taking the idea of his use of silence in another direction ….. Beethoven was also noteworthy for using pauses for dramatic effect in his music. A big chord played by an entire orchestra followed by silence creates incredible tension and absolutely rivets the listener. He did this a bit in his earlier work but relied on it a lot in his middle and later periods. Think of the beginning of the 5th symphony (dum-dum-dum-dummmm – pause. dum-dum-dum-dummm.. pause) or right before he brings in the chorus in the 9th.

  17. Yes! There’s a richness inside each of us that may be infinite. Meditation can key into this, which is another form of silence. We’re just so oriented outwardly, seldom do most of us turn around and look inwardly, where the real exists, in the present moment. Franz Kafka writes, “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen.
    Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary.
    The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice,
    it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Thank you, Cal, for this insightful post!

  18. The internet is one of the few mediums through which people are constantly railing against the medium they’re using, or different channels of the medium. This oxymoron shouldn’t be dismissed. No doubt there’s some value in it. I’ve heard the exact opposite advice from other writers. Going down the Wiki rabbit hole can be good for your writing. I think the advice to take here could be distilled differently. Instead of saying, “shut off the internet,” challenge the creator to deny themselves or limit themselves in a way that’s directly related to their craft. If they choose to nix the internet, that’s fine. But, and this is a big but, the person who shuts off the internet should be doing so because it benefits their art in a direct, sensual, even kinesthetic way.

  19. What a great article. I have admired Beethoven forever, but never even thought of silence this way. Even with the adaptations the last year have brought, I still find myself enmeshed with the sounds of society. Thank you for writing this. It helps me know that I can choose meaningful silence in my life, as well as what noise to welcome too.

  20. When you are involved and participating with the rest of us, you absorb and gather events and experiences. When you get away from it all, what you have gathered comes out new and transformed. I think it is the essence of creativity. imho

  21. Very nicely written piece. Unfortuneately, most people have never listened to Beethoven’s 9th (their loss) from beginning to the end. Sad, but people don’t have the patience to sit & listen for 1 hour and 10 minutes – but they should take the time – at least once in their lifetime. It is the utmost genius music I’ve ever heard (many others agree) and its going on 200 years old. The range of emotions Beethoveen brings you to is incredible. So drown out the noise around you and sit for 70 minutes and “listen” to what genius sounds like – knowing he created this being deaf. PS – check out on Youtube – Beethoven’s Ninth: 10,000 singers for Japans Christmas Song.

  22. Great to think about the greatness of Beethoven. How how he overcame deafness, but then again he was a genius and had the benefit of learning from the greatest piano and composing teachers of his time (though he disparaged them). And as far as discipline — doesn’t get any better than him. Want to spend several minutes listening to Beethoven’s thoughts? Then, check out his poem.

  23. The music was created in nothingness, and it was in the nothingness that he heard the music. Imagine what we can create if we tap into that.

  24. Great article Cal,

    An important point, not necessarily related to the point you were making but important in the context of innovating, which was highlighted poignantly in the movie ‘Mr Holland’s Opus’ is that Beethoven was already a master of his craft before he lost his hearing.

    It might be analogous to point out that one cannot simply absent themselves from society to write a genre-defining novel, unless they have the requisite skills to do so. But then obtaining those skills also requires disconnection from the distracting buzz, but with the intention of building mastery.


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