Beethoven (5th Symphony, Appassionata, Waldstein)

The use of mathematical devices is deeply embedded in Beethoven's music. Therefore, this is one of the best places to dig for information on the relationship between mathematics and music. I'm not saying that other composers do not use mathematical devices. Practically every musical composition has mathematical underpinnings. However, Beethoven was able to extend these mathematical devices to the extreme. It is by analyzing these extreme cases that we can find more convincing evidence on what types of devices he used.

We all know that Beethoven never really studied advanced mathematics. Yet he incorporates a surprising amount of math in his music, at very high levels. The beginning of his Fifth Symphony is a prime case, but examples such as this are legion. He "used" group theory type concepts to compose this famous symphony. In fact, he used what crystallographers call the Space Group of symmetry transformations! This Group governs many advanced technologies, such as quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, and crystallography that are the foundations of today's technological revolution. At this level of abstraction, a crystal of diamond and Beethoven's 5th symphony are one and the same! I will explain this remarkable observation below.

The Space Group that Beethoven "used" (he certainly had a different name for it) has been applied to characterize crystals, such as silicon and diamond. It is the properties of the Space Group that allow crystals to grow defect free and therefore, the Space Group is the very basis for the existence of crystals. Since crystals are characterized by the Space Group, an understanding of the Space Group provides a basic understanding of crystals. This was neat for materials scientists working to solve communications problems because the Space Group provided the framework from which to launch their studies. It's like the physicists needed to drive from New York to San Francisco and the mathematicians handed them a map! That is how we perfected the silicon transistor, which led to integrated circuits and the computer revolution. So, what is the Space Group? And why was this Group so useful for composing this symphony?

Groups are defined by a set of properties. Mathematicians found that groups defined in this way can be mathematically manipulated and physicists found them to be useful: that is, these particular groups that interested mathematicians and scientists provide us with a pathway to reality. One of the properties of groups is that they consist of Members and Operations. Another property is that if you perform an Operation on a Member, you get another Member of the same Group. A familiar group is the group of integers: -1, 0, 1, 2, 3, etc. An Operation for this group is addition: 2 + 3 = 5. Note that the application of the operation + to Members 2 and 3 yields another Member of the group, 5. Since Operations transform one member into another, they are also called Transformations. A Member of the Space Group can be anything in any space: an atom, a frog, or a note in any musical space dimension such as pitch, speed, or loudness. The Operations of the Space Group relevant to crystallography are Translation, Rotation, Mirror, Inversion, and the Unitary operation. These are almost self explanatory (Translation means you move the Member some distance in that space) except for the Unitary operation which basically leaves the Member unchanged. However, it is somewhat subtle because it is not the same as the equality transformation, and is therefore always listed last in textbooks. Unitary operations are generally associated with the most special member of the group, which we might call the Unitary Member. In the integer group noted above, this Member would be 0 for addition and 1 for multiplication (5+0 = 5x1 = 5).

Let me demonstrate how you might use this Space Group, in ordinary everyday life. Can you explain why, when you look into a mirror, the left hand goes around to the right (and vice versa), but your head doesn't rotate down to your feet? The Space Group tells us that you can't rotate the right hand and get a left hand because left-right is a mirror operation, not a rotation. Note that this is a strange transformation: your right hand becomes your left hand in the mirror; therefore, the wart on your right hand will be on your left hand image in the mirror. This can become confusing for a symmetric object such as a face because a wart on one side of the face will look strangely out of place in a photograph, compared to your familiar image in a mirror. The mirror operation is why, when you look into a flat mirror, the right hand becomes a left hand; however, a mirror cannot perform a rotation, so your head stays up and the feet stay down. Curved mirrors that play optical tricks (such as reversing the positions of the head and feet) are more complex mirrors that can perform additional Space Group operations, and group theory will be just as helpful in analyzing images in a curved mirror. The solution to the flat mirror image problem appeared to be rather easy because we had a mirror to help us, and we are so familiar with mirrors. The same problem can be restated in a different way, and it immediately becomes much more difficult, so that the need for group theory to help solve the problem becomes more obvious. If you turned a right hand glove inside out, will it stay right hand or will it become a left hand glove? I will leave it to you to figure that one out (hint: use a mirror).

Let's see how Beethoven used his intuitive understanding of spatial symmetry to compose his 5th Symphony. That famous first movement is constructed largely by using a single short musical theme consisting of four notes, of which the first three are repetitions of the same note. Since the fourth note is different, it is called the surprise note, and carries the beat. This musical theme can be represented schematically by the sequence 5553, where 3 is the surprise note. This is a pitch based space group; Beethoven used a space with 3 dimensions, pitch, time, and volume. I will consider only the pitch and time dimensions in the following discussions. Beethoven starts his Fifth Symphony by first introducing a Member of his Group: three repeat notes and a surprise note, 5553. After a momentary pause to give us time to recognize his Member, he performs a Translation operation: 4442. Every note is translated down. The result is another Member of the same Group. After another pause so that we can recognize his Translation operator, he says, "Isn't this interesting? Let's have fun!" and demonstrates the potential of this Operator with a series of translations that creates music. In order to make sure that we understand his construct, he does not mix other, more complicated, operators at this time. In the ensuing series of bars, he then successively incorporates the Rotation operator, creating 3555, and the Mirror operator, creating 7555. Somewhere near the middle of the 1st movement, he finally introduces what might be interpreted as the Unitary Member: 5555. Note that these groups of 5 identical notes are simply repeated, which is the Unitary operation.

In the final fast movements, he returns to the same group, but uses only the Unitary Member, and in a way that is one level more complex. It is always repeated three times. What is curious is that this is followed by a fourth sequence -- a surprise sequence 7654, which is not a Member. Together with the thrice repeated Unitary Member, the surprise sequence forms a Supergroup of the original Group. He has generalized his Group concept! The supergroup now consists of three members and a non-member of the initial group, which satisfies the conditions of the initial group (three repeats and a surprise).

Thus, the beginning of Beethoven's Fifth symphony, when translated into mathematical language, reads just like the first chapter of a textbook on group theory, almost sentence for sentence! Remember, group theory is one of the highest forms of mathematics. The material is even presented in the correct order as they appear in textbooks, from the introduction of the Member to the use of the Operators, starting with the simplest, Translation, and ending with the most subtle, the Unitary operator. He even demonstrates the generality of the concept by creating a supergroup from the original group.

Beethoven was particularly fond of this four-note theme, and used it in many of his compositions, such as the first movement of the Appassionata piano sonata, see bar 10, LH. Being the master that he is, he carefully avoids the pitch based Space Group for the Appassionata and uses different spaces -- he transforms them in tempo space and volume space (bars 234 to 238). This is further support for the idea that he must have had an intuitive grasp of group theory and consciously distinguished between these spaces. It seems to be a mathematical impossibility that this many agreements of his constructs with group theory just happened by accident, and is virtual proof that he was somehow playing around with these concepts.

Why was this construct so useful in this introduction? It certainly provides a uniform platform on which to hang his music. The simplicity and uniformity allow the audience to concentrate only on the music without distraction. It also has an addictive effect. These subliminal repetitions (the audience is not supposed to know that he used this particular device) can produce a large emotional effect. It is like a magician's trick -- it has a much larger effect if we do not know how the magician does it. It is a way of controlling the audience without their knowledge. Just as Beethoven had an intuitive understanding of this group type concept, we may all feel that some kind of pattern exists, without recognizing it explicitly. Mozart accomplished a similar effect using repetitions.

Knowledge of these group type devices that he uses is very useful for playing his music, because it tells you exactly what you should and should not do. Another example of this can be found in the 3rd movement of his Waldstein sonata, where the entire movement is based on a 3-note theme represented by 155 (the first CGG at the beginning). He does the same thing with the initial arpeggio of the 1st movement of the Appassionata, with a theme represented by 531 (the first CAbF). In both cases, unless you maintain the beat on the last note, the music loses its structure, depth and excitement. This is particularly interesting in the Appassionata, because in an arpeggio, you normally place the beat on the first note, and many students actually make that mistake. As in the Waldstein, this initial theme is repeated throughout the movement and is made increasingly obvious as the movement progresses. But by then, the audience is addicted to it and does not even notice that it is dominating the music. For those interested, you might look near the end of the 1st movement of the Appassionata where he transforms the theme to 315 and raises it to an extreme and almost ridiculous level at bar 240. Yet most in the audience will have no idea what device Beethoven was using, except to enjoy the wild climax, which is obviously ridiculously extreme, but by now carries a mysterious familiarity because the construct is the same, and you have heard it hundreds of times. Note that this climax loses much of its effect if the pianist does not bring out the theme (introduced in the first bar!) and emphasize the beat note.

Beethoven tells us the reason for the inexplicable 531 arpeggio in the beginning of the Appassionata when the arpeggio morphs into the main theme of the movement at bar 35. That is when we discover that the arpeggio at the beginning is an inverted and schematized form of his main theme, and why the beat is where it is. Thus the beginning of this piece, up to bar 35, is a psychological preparation for one of the most beautiful themes he composed. He wanted to implant the idea of the theme in our brain before we heard it! That may be one explanation for why this strange arpeggio is repeated twice at the beginning using an illogical chord progression. With analysis of this type, the structure of the entire 1st movement becomes apparent, which helps us to memorize, interpret, and play the piece correctly.

The use of group theoretical type concepts might be just an extra dimension that Beethoven wove into his music, perhaps to let us know how smart he was, in case we still didn't get the message. It may or may not be the mechanism with which he generated the music. Therefore, the above analysis gives us only a small glimpse into the mental processes that inspire music. Simply using these devices does not result in music. Or, are we coming close to something that Beethoven knew but didn't tell anyone?