Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Dissonance and Beethoven's Gas

You know how eight and nine year olds LOVE gross things like burping, farting, pooping etc?  Well, I have a great way for you to take advantage of this fascination with the disgusting to engage your child in Beethoven.

First to Explain for the Educator's Benefit:

During his life (years) Beethoven developed serious gastrointestinal trouble that caused him to hiccough, burp and release gas at the other end of the system frequently.  He was also extremely depressed during this period of his life, but managed to develop his symphony number 2 in comic relief of his own ailments.

Beethoven had a pretty rough life.  He was abused and even by standards of the day his childhood was considered to be a rough one.  He did not look like he is often depicted and was rather ugly and considered to have horrible hair (again even in his day).  It was his talent that would get him women, power and money but then in 1796 he began to have ringing in his ears.  By October of 1802  knew his hearing loss will be progressively worse and was incurable.   He wrote out his will and considered suicide in 1802, but that was also the year he wrote his second symphony (including its fourth movement) - one with a pretty upbeat sound and some odd little dissonances within it.  Once you know that in 1802, Beethoven had a really bad case of gas, the odd little dissonances start to make a lot of sense.  Burps, rumbles, you name it - he struggled with it.  Well, if you can't laugh at yourself who can you laugh at?  He put all his bodily movements right into his music.  WHAT A SENSE OF HUMOR this guy had!  (Perhaps it was "Papa Joe's" influence).  For all its crassness, his composition is truly beautiful and entertaining with its unexpected little twists (well, some are less little and more gigantic) throughout.

Beethoven's Symphony no. 2, fourth movement

Listen to the piece of music first and identify its first phrase has a "hiccough."  For yourself.  Listen to the moments when things are "moving" along pretty smoothly and the interruptions of further "hiccoughs," and "burps."  You can even hear the anxiety that comes before a troublesome bout with his intestines.  It is truly storytelling in music at its finest AND its grossest!

For more information about Beethoven and access to his music for purchase click here.

The Lesson

Once you've listened and identified the hiccoughs and burps to which I refer for yourself, play the movement once for your kids (without the background info).  Ask them what they thought and just hear them describe how they are reacting to the music.  You might prompt them to describe in more detail by asking if they heard any "strange sounds."  Ask them to hum favorite melodies within the music (or at least a melody that stood out if they won't agree that any of it is valid of being called a "favorite")

Before you play the piece a second time, describe dissonance to your kids.   Dissonance is the word we use to describe sounds that when made together seem to clash and are as awful for the ear as wine, pistachio, canary and ruby would be if all four of those colors were put together in one ensemble.
If you listen to the fourth movement from his sixth symphony (click here) you will hear a lot of dissonance.

Now, listen to the fourth movement of his second symphony again.  This time, specify that your kids should jump, raise their hands or in some way signal to you when they hear dissonance.  After they've heard the piece a second time, read the biographical information on this link OR listen to this short audio biography for kids together.  Add in the information about Beethoven's intestinal troubles.

Explain to your students or children that Beethoven used a combination of dissonance, disjunction (where notes are far apart) and staccato (where notes are played in such a way that they sound like a jump or a skip and end abruptly) to depict his own gas in the music you have been listening to.  Wait for the laughter and jokes to die down and then ask them to tally how many burps, hiccoughs and, well, other "gaseous moments" they can hear in the piece while you listen to it a third time.  Trust me, your kids will never again have trouble remembering who Beethoven is, or in particular, the fourth movement of his second symphony.

Of course you can continue on and learn even more about Beethoven by listening to more short lectures about Beethoven (These are great, for example, "Roll over Beethoven" discusses uses of Beethoven's music in contemporary culture and includes some funny jokes), Listening to Beethoven's Wig (a funny album that adds lyrics to Beethoven's masterful and most well known work to make it funny and memorable for your kids), and hearing more of his music.  You may also have noticed the little quiz from "Classics for Kids" you can have your kids fill out.


I would like to extend a message of gratitude to Professor Robert Greenberg for the golden nugget of information about Beethoven that made this lesson idea a possibility.  I first heard about Beethoven's gas problems and their expression in his music from Prof. Greenberg's course, "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music."

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