May 22, 2020

Speedy Beet

There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit.

Big thanks to the folks at Brooklyn Philharmonic: Conductor Alan Pierson, Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola.

And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth.

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JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I'm Jad. This is Radiolab. I want to play a story that's come up a couple of times in conversations with folks here at the show, and I guess I'll preface it this way. So one of the things that's been a little spooky weird about this moment is just time. You know, at least for those of us who don't have to work on the frontlines and are lucky enough to still have jobs, we are stuck in our homes doing the Zooms, trying to get things done, but the -- just the lack of routines, routines that typically give a day purpose, without those routines time does weird things. It bleeds, it stretches and then collapses. I mean, we've all had the experience of talking about something that happened on Tuesday, and then suddenly we're like, "Oh my God, that was just Tuesday? That feels like a lifetime ago." On the flip side, there's April. The entire month of April which lasted a second.


JAD: And I found myself thinking back to one of the very first -- I think it actually might be the first episode that Robert and I sort of hosted the show together. It was an entire episode about time. And we talked about relativity and flower clocks and spice clocks and all these things. And in that show, we played this piece of music that you're hearing. This is Beethoven's Ninth Symphony stretched from its typical 70-ish minutes to last 24 hours. I put that on the other day, and it was really interesting to listen to again. The way the music builds and builds and builds, and you don't know if it's gonna keep building to some crescendo which then never arrives. And then it pauses for way too long.


JAD: So no, I'm not gonna play you 24 hours of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. I am gonna actually play kind of the flipside, because ten years after we did that first show, that -- that first show was, like, 17 years ago. That's crazy. Crazy. Like, was that just Tuesday? But then 10 years after that, we ran into a different story also about Beethoven, and about how he clearly had a very acute sensitivity to how small differences in time can really affect people, and how he would have hated hearing his Ninth Symphony stretched. So we're gonna play you that second piece. We called it Speedy Beet. And then next week, we'll take some of these ideas in new directions.


JAD: Cool. Here we are.


ALAN PIERSON: Here we are.


JAD: Thank you for doing this.


ALAN PIERSON: Mm-hmm. My pleasure.


JAD: I have questions. You have some big books in front of you.




JAD: What are those?


ALAN PIERSON: These are Beethoven's symphonies.


JAD: This is Radiolab. I'm Jad.




JAD: Just drop them on the desk so we can feel the weighty massiveness of them.




JAD: There you go.




JAD: And this is Alan Pierson.


ALAN PIERSON: Conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic.


ROBERT: The Brook Phil?


JAD: The Brook Phil, yeah.


ROBERT: The B-Phil?


JAD: B-Phil. Anyhow, I called up Alan ...


JAD: That's a lot of Beethovens.


ALAN PIERSON: That's a lot of Beethoven symphonies.


JAD: ... because it turns out in those scores that he brought?


ROBERT: Mm-hmm.


JAD: There was this mystery that could completely transform how you feel about Beethoven, or at least how I have always felt about Beethoven, which is that I couldn't stand him.


ROBERT: Really?




JAD: Alan, too.


ALAN PIERSON: And I remember growing up and thinking, "Well, I'm a musician. I should love this. And I don't. Does that mean that maybe I'm a fraud? Am I a bad musician? Am I not really cut out for this?"


JAD: You know, like he would hear the Fifth, the one that everybody knows.


ALAN PIERSON: You know, those first measures are like bom bom bom bom. Very, like, heavy, ponderous.


JAD: Suffocating.


ROBERT: No! He could put you into a meadow like nobody.


JAD: Yeah, a meadow with -- with no oxygen.


ROBERT: That's -- no!


JAD: But whatever you think of Beethoven, it turns out that the Beethoven that you and I know, that we all know ...




JAD: ... may in fact, not be the Beethoven that Beethoven wanted us to know. We may be hearing his music in a way he did not intend at all.


ROBERT: I have no idea what you're talking about.


JAD: All right. Let me just start the story where it really begins.


ROBERT: Please.


JAD: You kind of have to go back all the way to the invention of this.






JAD: That was like the sound of my childhood.


ALAN PIERSON: Yeah. Right.


JAD: The metronome.


ALAN PIERSON: So Beethoven was one of the first composers to work with the metronome, and the metronome came out in 1817. So he would have been 47 when the metronome was -- you know, came out for the first time.


JAD: So the metronome was this new gizmo.


ALAN PIERSON: Right. It was a new gizmo. And the inventor of the metronome ...


JAD: Was his last name actually metronome? Like, Bobby Metronome?


ALAN PIERSON: No. Mälzel or Mälzel.


JAD: Mälzel.


ALAN PIERSON: I'm sure I'm saying it wrong.


JAD: However you say his name, in 1817 this dude, after he'd invented the metronome ...


ALAN PIERSON: Brought his metronome to Beethoven and said ...


JAD: "Check it out."


ALAN PIERSON: "I want you to use this." And Beethoven's first response was, "No, no, no. This is not the way music works."


JAD: But then, as was not uncommon for Mr. B. ...


ALAN PIERSON: It seemed to change his mind, and got really excited about the idea of using the metronome to fix for eternity what the tempos for all of his pieces should be.




JAD: As in this piece. Don't play it at this speed. Play like this. Now keep in mind, at this point Beethoven was pretty much at the end of his career.


ALAN PIERSON: Of the nine symphonies, by the time he'd gotten the metronome he'd written eight of them.


JAD: So what he did was he went back ...


ALAN PIERSON: And he marked in metronome markings for all of his symphonies.


JAD: And here's where the mystery really begins. Those tempo markings are fast. Like, really fast. Like, in some cases obscenely fast.


ALAN PIERSON: You know, like okay, take a -- take a piece like the Third Symphony. For that piece, the first movement is marked at dotted half equals 60. One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three.


JAD: Which is almost impossible to play.


ALAN PIERSON: Takka-takka-takka-takka-takka-takka ...


JAD: Holy shoot!


ALAN PIERSON: Really fast.


JAD: Who's playing -- who's playing that fast?




JAD: Alan got a couple string players together from the Brooklyn Phil to demonstrate just how hard it is to play the Third at Beethoven's tempo markings. Like this part coming up. Check this out.






JAD: That was great!


JAD: Alan says when he tried to play that piece at that tempo with the entire orchestra ...


ALAN PIERSON: I remember there was one rehearsal ...


JAD: Only one.


ALAN PIERSON: ... where we got it -- got it up to tempo.


JAD: But when you do get it up to that speed it's a completely different piece.




JAD: Then take the Fifth, which has been played as slow as this right here.




JAD: This is 74 beats per minute. Beethoven actually marked it here.




JAD: At 108 beats per minute.


ROBERT: Oh, now that's ridiculous.


JAD: No, it's just a different feel.


ROBERT: That's too fast.


JAD: Well, you're -- it is for a lot of people. And according to Alan for the last couple hundred years, people have been arguing about these tempo markings.


ALAN PIERSON: You know, to what extent did, like, those markings that he put in 1817 really represent his actual intentions.


JAD: Well, wait. What's the debate? If he put them in, he put them in.


ALAN PIERSON: There are lots of ways that people debate them. One is there's a story that goes around that Beethoven's metronome was broken.


JAD: [laughs] Really?




ROBERT: [laughs]


JAD: Like, he had ...


ROBERT: It was going too fast?


JAD: Not too fast, but that the numbers were wrong.




JAD: So if you were to hear this song, which is -- da-un, da-un, da-un, da-un -- which is 113-ish.


ROBERT: Mm-hmm.


JAD: He might look on his metronome and it would say 130 or something like that.


ROBERT: So inadvertently he wrote down the wrong number.


JAD: That's the idea.


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: Although we now have Beethoven's metronome and it seems to work fine.


JAD: You have the metronome?


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: I believe somebody tracked it down ...


JAD: That's music critic Matthew Guerrieri, who's written a lot about Beethoven.


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: ... tested it and it seemed to work okay.


JAD: And it matches up to every -- all the other metronomes in the world?




ROBERT: So we eliminate the defective metronome theory.


JAD: Throw it out. Now!




JAD: Another story that's sometimes used to explain the markings, it goes like this. That Beethoven actually did notate the tempos slower, but then he gave the pages to his assistants ...


ALAN PIERSON: And now they needed to go off to the publisher, but they couldn't find them.


JAD: They somehow lost the papers.


ALAN PIERSON: And so they had to rewrite them.


JAD: And in their haste, they inadvertently put down the wrong numbers and sped up the pieces.


ROBERT: Clerical error. Explanation number two.


JAD: Yeah, but this one I just -- I don't find that plausible. I mean, he could have corrected them at some point. And, you know, he didn't just do this one time. He did it for all eight symphonies.




JAD: So I don't know.


ROBERT: All right, we eliminate clerical error.


JAD: Yeah.


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: And then there was -- then there was speculation that ...


JAD: Theory number three.


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: This may have been affected by the fact that by the time he was doing all these metronome markings ...


ALAN PIERSON: Beethoven was deaf.


JAD: Oh.


ALAN PIERSON: So Beethoven by 1814 was basically completely deaf, and the metronome came out in 1817.


ROBERT: What does being deaf have to do with how -- what speed you play the music? I mean, you can't hear the music in any event.


JAD: It's -- it has to do with the space in which you're hearing the music. Like, if you're hearing the music just in your head ...




JAD: ... it's just kind of in the vacuum of your imagination.


ROBERT: Right.


JAD: You take that music and you put it into a room. Suddenly, you've got the acoustics of that room, which if it's a big concert hall are gonna make all the notes muddy, the tails of one note are gonna bleed into the attacks of the next. And so Alan says what always happens when you put music in a room ...


ALAN PIERSON: You will play things a little bit slower.


JAD: To maintain the clarity.




JAD: But Beethoven ...


ALAN PIERSON: When he was making these metronome markings ...


JAD: ... he was only hearing the music in his head.


ALAN PIERSON: Not hearing it in the real world. And maybe had he heard it in the real world, would have done something different. But the counter-argument is ...


JAD: Who cares?


ALAN PIERSON: If we can create the music that Beethoven heard in his head, isn't that something that's worth doing?


JAD: Up until recently, the answer has been no because people have not generally performed these pieces at his markings. But both Alan and Matt think that we probably should just accept these accelerated tempos, you know, like with the Fifth at 108, just go with it.


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: Yeah, it's very possible that that's the speed he wanted. If that is the speed he wanted, it's a very interesting speed because it's -- it's a tempo almost designed to make us feel uncomfortable. It's almost designed to disorient us.


JAD: Here's where we get to a fourth explanation for why Beethoven made these tempos super fast. It's speculative, it takes a little setup, but it's super interesting, I think. It points at a kind of human time that I had never considered, and I will tell you all about it after the break. Radiolab will continue in a moment.


[TSIPORA: My name is Tsipora, calling from Seattle. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloane at]


JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad, this is Radiolab. We are revisiting a piece from many moons ago about Beethoven, and we'll pick it back up with a fourth and final theory about why Beethoven put such speedy markings on his music.


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: There's something called Vierordt's law, which is a law it was discovered in the 1860s by an Austrian doctor named Karl von Vierordt.


JAD: And what this law says, according to Matt, is that when you ask people to guess tempos or lengths of time ...


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: People will always overestimate short durations of time, and they'll always underestimate long durations of time.


ROBERT: What does that mean to underestimate?


JAD: Well ...


ROBERT: You mean, you guess backwards, oh that ...


JAD: Well, let me just -- it's kind of a complicated thing he just said. So I'm gonna -- let's just do it as a demonstration.




JAD: I'm gonna give you a test.


ROBERT: All right.


JAD: I'm gonna give you four beats, first slow then fast. Your job is to guess where that fifth beat is gonna land. So I'm gonna give you four beats: dat dat dat dat, and then you have to hit your pen where you think that fifth beat is going to fall. Okay?




JAD: That's ...


ROBERT: So you're not asking me to do a melody or invent anything.


JAD: No, no, no. Just hit your pen where you feel the fifth beat is gonna land. Okay, here's the first one. Slow.




JAD: Okay, ready?




JAD: See, this is the law in action. You just rushed it.


ROBERT: I did not!


JAD: You so rushed it.


ROBERT: I did not! Do it again.


JAD: All right.






JAD: Okay, you were closer that time. You were closer.


ROBERT: I was the same.


JAD: And you rushed it a little bit, but you were closer.


ROBERT: I didn't rush it.


JAD: Now if we do the same thing with a fast tempo, like I give you four you guess the fifth, okay?


ROBERT: All right.


JAD: Here goes.






JAD: Oh, come on. Try that again.






JAD: You were late again.


ROBERT: I wasn't late. That was exactly ...


JAD: You were so late!


ROBERT: Measure it. Measure it.


JAD: You were audibly late.


ROBERT: Measure the [BLEEP] thing!


JAD: It's right here on the waveform. Boom. 3-7-8. Oh yeah, you're 50 milliseconds late.


ROBERT: You think I'm 150 milliseconds late?


JAD: 50.


ROBERT: Step outside!


JAD: I'm not even thinking it. I can see it in the computer right here. So the point is Vierordt's law says that when we have a slow tempo ...


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: We'll tend to unconsciously try and speed it up.


JAD: And when we have a really fast tempo ...


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: We will tend to unconsciously slow it down. And if you think about that for a minute, at some point our perception has to flip over.


JAD: Because if we're unconsciously speeding up slow beats and slowing down fast beats, well, there's got to be ...


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: Some particular point ...


JAD: ... right in the middle ...


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: ... where our judgment of time actually syncs up with actual time.


JAD: Where in other words, we guess the tempo correctly.


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: Yeah, and it's called the indifference point.


JAD: I don't know why it's called that, but according to most research that point falls somewhere around this tempo.




MATTHEW GUERRIERI: 94, 96 beats per minute.


JAD: If you give people four beats of this tempo and then ask them to guess the fifth, they usually get it right.




JAD: That's human time.




JAD: That's kind of where humans live, right in that little gap.




JAD: And the really interesting thing is that this tempo, this little point ...


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: Is right about where people tend to dial back to when they don't want to perform Beethoven's Fifth as fast as it's written.


JAD: In fact, when Alan asked his quartet to just play the Fifth at whatever tempo felt right, they fell right back to this indifference point.


ROBERT: Well, so you're building to some theory here, aren't you?


JAD: Yeah, that maybe, just maybe, Beethoven was playing a kind of cat and mouse game. That he intuited that there was some place, some point where we felt comfortable, where ...


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: ... every beat is coming exactly where we expect it to.


JAD: And it just feels right. And he never wanted his music to fall into that place.




JAD: So if we like 92 beats per minute, he was gonna push his tempos to 108. So it was just a little too fast. Every beat kind of coming a tiny bit too early.


MATTHEW GUERRIERI: So the piece is always -- it always just feels like it's running away from us in a very real, psychological way.


JAD: And this fits with what we know about the guy. I mean, there are numerous anecdotes where he would push not just his audience but his musicians, almost as if he wanted to hear them struggle.


TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: When he was rehearsing his Ninth Symphony, those soloists walked out of rehearsal because he was pushing them beyond their limits.


JAD: That's Terrance McKnight who hosts a classical music show on WQXR.


TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: Maybe that's what those quick tempos were about.


JAD: About maybe pushing the musicians so they'd miss a few notes.


TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: He didn't care about the notes.


JAD: He said that the music was right on the edge.


TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: You know, this is -- you know, something's impending. This is danger. This is ferocious.


JAD: Not normally how we think of classical music.


ALAN PIERSON: We have a -- we have a sort of ethos of perfection around classical music now that I think makes us maybe less willing to be on the edge.


JAD: Think of it this way, says Terrance.


TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: You know, Beethoven was kind of an outsider.


JAD: Didn't come from privilege. He was a short, dark-skinned dude.


TERRANCE MCKNIGHT: You know, some people say that his grandmother was of African descent.


JAD: He probably stood out in 19th-century Vienna.




JAD: So you could say here's this guy who's always on the outside, and he wants his music to always express that. But he can see into the future to a time when his music would become the canon!


ROBERT: The man!


JAD: Yes! And maybe that's not what he wanted.




JAD: If you read it that way, these tempo markings are kind of liberating. It's like this message from 1817 saying, "Get me out of here!"


ROBERT: [laughs]


JAD: And interestingly when I was talking with Alan, he sort of implied without quite saying it outright, that one of the ways that you can keep orchestral music exciting in a time when it's not for a lot of people, is by just playing things faster.




JAD: Have you ever done Beethoven faster than its markings?


ALAN PIERSON: No. I would -- the Fifth you could play faster, and that would be fascinating. I'd be very interested to hear the Fifth. I've never heard it done.


JAD: You've never heard it faster than 108?


ALAN PIERSON: I would think you could do 120-ish.


JAD: Well, let's just -- let's just do this. Let's getting our metronomes out.


ALAN PIERSON: So here's 120. [HUMMING]


JAD: Okay. Well make it faster. Make it 140.


ALAN PIERSON: 140, I bet [HUMMING]. You could do it.


JAD: Could you go to, like, 160?


ALAN PIERSON: I think that's around the edge.


JAD: But we tried it with his quartet.


ALAN PIERSON: All right. Ready?




JAD: Wow! I just want to go run out into the snow. That was fantastic! You totally nailed 160.


ALAN PIERSON: I don't know if I'd say "nailed."


JAD: That is a Beethoven I can dig right there.


ROBERT: I could just see the people in Vienna, like, their ties are falling off, their socks are falling down, they're drooling.


JAD: It's like it's a whole different thing at that point.


ROBERT: Yeah, totally.


JAD: Thanks first and foremost to Alan Pierson at the Brooklyn Phil, and to the incredible players.


DEBORAH BUCK: I'm Deborah Buck.


JAD: Violin.


SUZIE PERELMAN: I'm violin too. I'm Suzie Perelman.


ARASH AMINI: Arash Amini. I go by Joey. I'm a cellist.


AH LING NEU: Ah Ling Neu on the viola.


JAD: Thanks also to Kathleen Coughlin from the Brooklyn Phil, and Matthew Guerrieri who wrote the book The First Four Notes -- dun dun dun da -- which is a great read about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.


ROBERT: And thanks of course, to Ludwig van B and his lovely metronome.


JAD: Yes. I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: Thank you guys for listening. More from us next week. Until then, be safe.


[TIM: This is Tim Scamel from New Maryland in New Brunswick, Canada. Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad with Robert Krulwich, and produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our Executive Producer. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, W. Harry Fortuna, Sarah Sandbach, Malissa O’Donnell, Tad Davis, and Russell Gragg. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]


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