TBT: The Point of Indifference

March 26th, 1827.

Beethoven dies.

I was thinking about classical music lately in that I should probably listen to it more. I've never been to a symphony, which seems weird to me now, but it's probably because tickets are outrageous and I wouldn't know a good one from a bad one.

I could tell you a good pop song from a bad one. I could elaborate on a good play versus a not good one, and I know you shouldn't pair beef stew with a white wine. But knowing the difference between the London Symphony and the Vacaville Symphony would be beyond me.

I could tell you which room has better acoustics . . . so at least that's something.

I went to an opera once. La Boheme directed by Baz Lurman. That was pretty cool. But I don't ever have to do that again. With opera I find that the composers spend more of their notes trying to figure out what the voice CAN do and not enough time thinking about what the voice SHOULD do.

I also don't like people screaming at me.

Back to Beethoven, I always put him at the top of my classical music taste. Like . . . Bach invented music. As a music scholar once told me, Bach was "The Man." He is precision.

Mozart, on the other hand, gave music personality. Even without knowing much about anything, you can hear Tom Hulce's giggle behind every bar of Mozart's cannon. He's as easily recognizable as a Danny Elfman score.

Beethoven gave music pain and anger.

Even his "Ode to Joy"

Composers after that get too avant garde for my taste. It's like Beethoven perfected realism and truth and after that . . . well . . . nothing is left but to push the art into eventual abstraction.

Anyway, I was listening to this RadioLab bit on Beethoven's tempo markings. Between his 8th and 9th Symphonies, the metronome came out and so he went back to all of his work and added in the tempo he wanted his pieces to be played at.

And it seems as though Beethoven was more punk than we thought.

He wanted everything faster and louder than is traditionally played.

And in a lot of cases . . . uncomfortably so.  He was probably more likely to hang out with Joey Ramone than Yo Yo Ma.

There's a lot of debate over this. Maybe his metronome was broken. Maybe there was a clerical error. He was deaf by the time the metronome came out so he was hearing the music in his head and not in an actual space.

(In actual space there is reverberation which when notes are played too fast, the tail of one note bleeds into the attack of another, making things all muddy).

Or . . . he wanted his music to push your buttons.

Which makes the most sense to me.

Yet . . . if we have the tempo markings . . . why has his music evolved to be played much slower?

The answer is a cool thing called Vierordt's Law.

See, if we played beats too slow, the natural tendency is to speed it up. And if we play things too fast, the natural tendency is to slow things down.

The tempo at which we feel most comfortable is around 95 beats per minute.

It's called the Point of Indifference.

Beethoven put a lot of songs at 108.

He didn't want you to be indifferent. He wanted you just a little bit on edge.

The Point of Indifference has another meaning as well. It's an economic term for when the rate of investment moves away from (and above) the rate of return.

The Point of Indifference is where spending more doesn't result in making more. It's an important factor in how companies decide on such things as product quality and payroll dollars.

And it doesn't have to be limited to just the financial sector.

An expensive set of clubs ain't gonna make you a better golfer. More salt isn't gonna make your food taste better. A healthy lunch isn't going to help you with those love handles when you still plan on Pot Roast for dinner. You can auto-tune your voice all you want . . . ain't gonna make you a better lyricist.

and so on.

What frustrates me about the indifference point is that it's most commonly and aggressively institutionalized as the ULTIMATE GOAL. (especially, especially in the business world).

I much prefer to think of the indifference point as ROCK BOTTOM.

It's the point at which you've failed.

It's the point at which you've gotten things right and no longer have the strength, nor the courage, to get things good.

In art . . . it's the point of abandonment. Which . . . is okay . . . but only because you have to go on to the next thing, and a good artist will remember the steps that got her/him to the indifference point and try to avoid them in the future.

I hate that moment. Though it does come with certain sense of relief, it always reminds me of the gap between what I meant to do . . . and what I actually did. Sometimes that divide is really like super really painful to experience.

Beethoven felt that way when he could still hear his works being played.

too slow . . . too slow . . . that's not what I meant at all . . . in fact . . . it's not what I did.

So with the invention of the metronome, he goes back to all his works and makes sure his intention is set in stone.

But even his insistence gets eroded by time.

Gravity moves us all to the point of indifference.

Bum Bum Bum, Buuuuuuuum.

Buuum Buuum Buuum, Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuum!

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