Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Submission for Leuven Workshop March 2006

Sonata quasi una fantasia: Beethoven's masterclass on form and meaning transposed into the computing age

Meurig Beynon
The Empirical Modelling Research Group
Computer Science, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL

Beethoven is popularly perceived by musical commentators as 'the man who freed music' (Schauffler, 1935). This notion of emancipation has cultural, technological and ontological aspects. Culturally, Beethoven subverted the notion of musician as subservient to patron by asserting the composer's autonomy in respect of musical motivation, expression and taste. His music both promoted and exploited social and technological developments that were to transform performance practice and to afford wider access. A major factor in this transformation was the emergence of the pianoforte as an ubiquitous instrument of great versatility, whose applications encompassed intimate chamber music, symphonic and operatic transcriptions, and virtuosic solo display. Perhaps most significantly, Beethoven initiated experiments that challenge classical notions of musical form and interpretation, and - through effecting the "romantic breakthrough" - raise ontological issues concerning the relationship between musical structure and affect.

Beethoven's innovative treatment of musical form and meaning is prominently illustrated in the eleven piano sonatas (from op. 13 to op. 31) published between 1799 and 1804. The impact and still current topicality of these innovations is evident in the diversity of techniques that musicologists have brought to their analysis. Amongst the plethora of approaches that apply to these sonatas, pertinent examples include: Tovey's non-standard account of tonal relationships (1944); Caplin's elaborated notions of musical form (1998); Seaton's discussion of the "Tempest" sonata as narrative (2005). But, significant as Beethoven's influence was in the development of sonata form, it is arguably the emancipation of new potential modes of ascribing meanings to music that had yet greater novelty and impact at the time. Beethoven's own testimony concerning the personal meaning invested in his music - endorsed by the unprecedented insight into his processes of composition afforded by sketch and conversation books, and embellished as his reputation grew - licensed attitudes that for many years inhibited detached critical reflection on key issues such as the relevance of cultural influences, and of authentic instruments and conventions, on the construction of musical meaning (Garnett, 1998; Hatton, 1994; Cooke, 1990).

There is a striking analogy between the development of computing in the late 20th century and that of music at the turn of the 19th. Over this period, the character of computing changed so that activity that was once the prerogative of expert programmers within highly resourced corporations became commonplace and accessible to the individual. Moreover, the social and technological changes that enabled this development (in which the personal computer played a role somewhat analogous to that of the pianoforte) had a closely parallel impact on the perceived nature of computing activity. Where the emphasis was formerly on formality and function, personal computing engaged more and more with meanings projected onto computer-based artefacts from application domains that were no longer exclusively - nor even predominantly - scientific and mathematical in character. This analogy motivates the theme of the paper: outlining (and illustrating with appropriate musical extracts and computer models) the potential conceptual and practical implications for musicology of extensive research into modelling principles to unify otherwise disparate accounts of computing that are rooted in the studies of form and meaning (The Empirical Modelling website; Beynon, Russ and McCarty, 2006 - cf. Smith, 1987; Huron, 1999).


Meurig Beynon, Steve Russ and Willard McCarty, Human Computing: Modelling with Meaning, in Special issue based on the Proceedings of ALLC/ACH 2005, Victoria, BC, June 2005, Literary and Linguistic Computing, 2006 (to appear)

William E. Caplin, Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998

Deryck Cooke, The Language of Music, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Liz Garnett, Musical Meaning Revisited: Thoughts on an 'Epic' Critical Musicology, Critical Musicology Journal, 1998

Martha Frohlich, Commentary on Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata op.28, in Facsimile of the Autograph, the Sketches, and the First Edition with Transcription and Commentary, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn, 1996.

Floyd K. Grave, review of William E. Caplin, Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, Music Theory Online, Volume 4.6

Robert Hatton, Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, Correlation, and Interpretation, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994

David Huron, The New Empiricism: Systematic Musicology in a Postmodern Age, Lecture 3 from the 1999 Ernest Bloch Lectures, at the URL:

Douglass Seaton, Narrative in Music: The Case of Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata, in Narratology beyond Literary Criticism: Mediality, Disciplinarity (ed. Meister, J.C.), Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, New York, 2005

Brian Cantwell Smith, Two Lessons of Logic, Comput. Intell. 3, 214-218, 1987.

Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition, (ed. Strang, G. and Stein, L.) London, Faber and Faber, 1967

Donald Francis Tovey, Beethoven, Oxford University Press, London, 1944

Robert Haven Schauffler, Beethoven: The Man who Freed Music, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Co, 1935

The Empirical Modelling website, at URL: