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Was Beethoven Born Deaf?

Was Beethoven Born Deaf?

In May 1824, at the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the audience broke out into rapturous applause. However, since Beethoven was almost totally deaf then, he had to be turned around to see the cheering audience.

Undoubtedly, the works of Ludwig Van Beethoven are some of the most performed in the classical music repertoire, spanning the Classical period to the Romantic era transition. He composed and performed piano sonatas of extreme technical difficulties.

So, was Beethoven born deaf? No, he wasn’t born deaf.

Also, contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t completely deaf; he could still hear sounds in his left ear until shortly before his demise in 1827.

Was Beethoven Born Deaf? Infographic.

At What Age Did He Go Deaf?

Beethoven wrote a letter to his friend, Franz Wegeler, in 1801, the first documented evidence supporting 1798 (age 28) as the year he started experiencing the first symptoms of hearing problems.

Painting of Ludwig Van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler made in the year 1820.
Painting of Ludwig Van Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler made in the year 1820
Karl Joseph Stieler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Until then, the young Beethoven was looking forward to a successful career. His hearing problem initially affected his left ear mainly. He began hearing buzzing and ringing in his ears. 

In his letter, Beethoven writes that he couldn’t hear the singers’ voices and the high notes of the instruments from a distance; he had to get very close to the orchestra to understand the performers.

He also mentions that while he could still hear the sounds when people talked softly, he couldn’t hear the words; but couldn’t bear it if anyone shouted. [1]

With a continuous decline in his hearing, by the time he was 46 in 1816, it is widely believed Beethoven had turned entirely deaf. Although, it’s also said that in his final years, he could still distinguish low tones and sudden loud sounds.

What Caused His Hearing Loss?

The cause of Beethoven’s hearing loss has been attributed to several different reasons over the last 200 years. 

From typhus fever, lupus, heavy metal poisoning, and tertiary syphilis to Paget’s disease and sarcoidosis, he suffered from multiple ailments and illnesses, like many men of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. [2]

Beethoven noted that he suffered a fit of rage in 1798 when he was interrupted at work. When he angrily got up from the piano to open the door in a rush, his leg got stuck, making him fall face down on the floor. While this wasn’t the cause of his deafness, it did trigger the gradually continual hearing loss. [4]

Since he suffered from diarrhea and chronic abdominal pain (possibly due to an inflammatory bowel disorder), he blamed his gastrointestinal problems for deafness.

After his demise, an autopsy revealed that he had a distended inner ear, with lesions that had developed over time.

Treatments He Sought for Deafness

Since Beethoven had stomach ailments, the first person he consulted, Johann Frank, a local professor of medicine, believed his abdominal problems to be the cause of his hearing loss.

When the herbal remedies failed to improve his hearing or his abdominal condition, he took lukewarm baths in the Danube waters, on recommendation from a former German military surgeon, Gerhard von Vering. [3]

While he stated that he started feeling better and stronger, he mentioned that his ears would constantly buzz all day. Some of the bizarre, unpleasant treatments also involved strapping wet barks to his underarms until they dried out and produced blisters, keeping him away from his piano playing for two weeks.

After 1822, he discontinued seeking treatment for his hearing. Instead, he resorted to different hearing aids, like special hearing trumpets.

Beethoven's walk in nature, by Julius Schmid.
Beethoven’s walk in nature, by Julius Schmid
Julius Schmid, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Beethoven’s Career After Discovering Hearing Loss

Around 1802, Beethoven moved to the small town of Heiligenstadt and was despaired with his hearing loss, even contemplating suicide.

However, there was a turning point in his life when he eventually came to terms with the fact that there might not be an improvement in his hearing. He even noted in one of his musical sketches, “Let your deafness no longer be a secret – even in art.” [4]

Painting of Ludwig van Beethoven in the Boston Public Library.
Painting of Ludwig van Beethoven in the Boston Public Library
L. Prang & Co. (publisher), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Beethoven began with his new way of composing; this phase saw his compositions reflecting extra-musical ideas of heroism. It was termed the heroic period, and while he continued composing music, playing at concerts was increasingly difficult (which was one of his primary sources of income).

Carl Czerny, one of Beethoven’s students from 1801 – 1803, remarked he could hear music and speech normally till 1812.

He began using lower notes since he could hear those more clearly. Some of his work during the heroic period include his only opera Fidelio, the Moonlight Sonata, and six symphonies. It’s only towards the end of his life that the high notes returned to his compositions, suggesting that he was shaping his work through his imagination.

While Beethoven continued performing, he would bang on the pianos so hard to be able to hear the notes that he ended up wrecking them. Beethoven insisted on conducting his last piece of work, the magisterial Ninth Symphony.

From the First Symphony in 1800, his first major orchestral work, to his final Ninth Symphony in 1824, he was still able to create a massive body of influential work despite suffering from so many physical troubles.


While trying to come to terms with his progressing hearing loss, it didn’t stop Beethoven from composing music. 

He continued writing music well into the later years of his life. Beethoven likely never heard a single note of his masterpiece, the final Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, being played. [5]

As an innovator of the musical form, having widened the scope of the string quartets, the piano concerto, the symphony, and the piano sonata, it’s unfortunate that he had to experience so hard a fate. Yet, Beethoven’s music continues to feature in modern-day compositions, too.