Understanding Beethoven's Große Fuge

So, what's to understand?

Some people think that music sounds pretty much the same to everyone with
normal hearing and that differences among listeners' reactions to music arise
solely from differences in personality or extra-musical associations (like being
reminded of what was happening in their life when they were first exposed to
a particular song or genre, or who they knew who listened to it).

It's true that many factors can affect a listener's emotional reaction to music,
but these factors can also affect how the music is perceived—how it sounds.
If you think a piece of music is beautiful but somebody else thinks it's awful,
it's most likely not simply a matter of taste; it's much more likely that you're
hearing very different things than they are.

Hearing ticks as a pattern

Here's an example of hearing things differently:

(click here if browser player doesn't work)

As you can see, Snooky does not understand that the metronome is beating regularly.
For him, every tick is a new, unexpected event. A human listener might be startled by
a single unexpected metronome click, but after a few clicks, they wouldn't be surprised
at all. We learn to hear the ticks as a regular sequence, and can tell if the pattern of
ticking changes.

Hearing sounds as speech

With some sounds, though, we need more hints to be able to recognize the pattern.

For example, listen to this:

If you're like most people, you can't make sense of this, even after listening to it a few times.

Here is the speech it was derived from:

After hearing this, you might say that the original example still "sounds the same" in some sense,
but probably you now recognize what it's saying—it has become more meaningful to you.

Hearing speech as music

For sounds to be meaningful as music, we first have to recognize what we're hearing as music.
Some poeople criticize music they don't like by saying "it's not even music." We tend to think
of musical hearing as being innate, but we're continually learning to hear more of what's going on.

On the first time through, most people hear this sentence ...

... as speech, not singing. However, in this ...

... in which a phrase from that sentence is repeated, most people start hearing it as singing,
and when they then go back to the original, that phrase is still heard that way—they've
learned to hear it as music.

Hearing music as meaningful

That same kind of learning happens with music, but since we learn a lot of the fundamentals
(rhythm, harmony, melody, etc.) before we're old enough to remember the process, it's easy
to imagine that our understanding is mostly innate.

And, there are other things about music that make it easy to overlook the role of understanding.
Music operates on many levels at once, so even if you're not aware of something that's happening
on one level, you may still be following it at lots of other levels, enough that you're enjoying it
even though you're missing something. For example, I once encountered somebody who loved
listening to Gabrieli canzonas played by brass choir, but who didn't realize that it was
contrapuntal; he heard it as harmonic, and rhythmic, and textural, but he didn't notice that the
same melodic patterns were being played by different instruments at different times; for him,
there was just one solo at the beginning, and then it was a big, rhythmic chordal thing.
Being able to hear the separate voices in contrapuntal music takes practice, and viewers often
comment that they find it easier to follow the lines in Renaissance and Baroque music when
they're watching my animated graphical scores.

Another reason it's easy to overlook our learning is that the changes are completely internal,
and largely outside the reach of language. When we don't understand music, it sounds
meaningless, aimless, random ... more like noise. And when we do understand it, it sounds ...
well, like music. We might like it better, or feel more comfortable, it's hard to say what exactly
we've learned, other than something vague like "I get how it goes."

Beethoven's Große Fuge

A lot of Beethoven's music has enough levels of organization (melodic, harmonic, gestural,
narrative, etc.) that most listeners are able to understand a lot of what's going on it most of
what he wrote, and while they might be missing something that prevents them from fully
appreciating the music, they don't have the feeling of "this isn't music" or "this is random"
or "this is garbage." But he wrote one piece which is unusually demanding on many levels
at once, and which many people have trouble understanding: his Große Fuge (Great Fugue).

The passages of the Große Fuge that are most perplexing to the uninitiated are demanding in
several ways at once: harmonically, texturally, melodically, contrapuntally, and rhythmically.
Its main theme is chromatic and angular (alternating half-steps with large leaps), and is
presented in a encyclopedic array of different tempos and rhythms throughout the piece.
The harmony is likewise highly chromatic (in some passages), and often uses harmonic
syncopation (anticipating or delaying important notes). The main theme is angular, but
other themes have even larger leaps, which means that an instrument might be near the
top of the group texture one moment and buried deep within it at the next. And there are
extended syncopated passages where none of the most agressive notes are on the beat.

As a result, many listeners have had trouble understanding it—from its first performance
to the present day. But many have also come to terms with it (especially since the advent
of sound recording, allowing people to listen to it enough to learn to follow it), and most
of these find it worth the effort.

The Große Fuge's mixed audience reaction is reflected in the viewer comments on my
animated graphical scores of the piece (especially the first version, posted in 2010,
with over two thousand comments). Some viewers love it on first hearing, some hate it
at first but come to love it later, and some never get over their intitial negative reaction.

In the same way that hints (as in the Hearing sounds as speech example above) or repetition
(as in the Hearing speech as music example) can serve as "training wheels" for our ears,
it's possible to learn how to listen to the Große Fuge. Normal listening is enough for some
listeners, but I've made a couple of videos that address specific difficulties.


In my opinion, the most challenging passages of the Große Fuge are the ones which are
highly syncopated. Because they're also harmonically (chromatically) and texturally complex,
there's very little to hang on to, and if you don't know where the beats are, it will be hard to
make sense of it. To help with this, I've made a version with a "rhythmic curtain" that shows
where the downbeats of the measures are (starting about a minute in, where the fugue begins) ...

(click here if browser player doesn't work)

What I'd suggest is to watch this while tapping the beats (tapping your hand or your foot, or conducting).
Most of the piece is pretty easy, but the most highly syncopated parts are tricky, even with this aid.


Because the texture is so irregular, it can be hard to follow what's going on harmonically. To help
with this, I've made a version of the opening (the overture through the exposition of the fugue—
about the first two minutes) with a simplified texture (but the same general form and harmonies):

(click here if browser player doesn't work)

If the opening of the Große Fuge sounds strange to you, listen to this version a few times,
then listen to the original again, and see if you hear it any differently.

Stephen Malinowski, April 2022