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Researchers wonder if an irregular heartbeat was behind Beethoven's success

A cardiologist, internal medicine specialist, and musicologist have raised an unexpected theory: Was an irregular heartbeat the key to Ludwig van Beethoven's success as a composer?

"When your heart beats irregularly from heart disease, it does so in some predictable patterns," one of the researchers, internal medicine specialist Joel D. Howell, told the Los Angeles Times. "We think we hear some of those patterns in his music." Beethoven died at the age of 56, and while he was known to be deaf, historians believe he could have also suffered from alcohol-induced cirrhosis, lead poisoning, and syphilis. The study's authors believe he was also predisposed to atrial fibrillation, atrial flutter, or multifocal atrial tachycardia, and looked at a few of his compositions that stood out as being unusual for their time period.

One piece, the Piano Sonata in E flat major (Opus 81a) had a "distinctive 'galloping' rhythm" in the adagio section, and the authors heard slow, irregular heartbeats followed by "racing" irregular heartbeats, in the allegro section. In his String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major (Opus 130), the authors heard "a short paroxysm of atrial tachyarrhythmia," and noted that Beethoven wrote that the passage should be played with a "heavy heart."

The team knows that their research was "entirely speculative," but they also noted that "in highly charged passages of certain pieces, the possibility of cardiac arrhythmia can lend a quite physical aspect to one's interpretation of the music in question. These passages can seem, in an unexpected literal sense, to be heartfelt." --Catherine Garcia