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Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 06:20 PM

The plan was to play snippets of Beethoven's Third and Fifth symphonies at the surprisingly fast tempos Beethoven marked on his scores (listen to our podcast Speedy Beet for the full story). But Alan Pierson and some brave Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians were game to see Beethoven's markings, and raise 'em. And we've got the camera phone footage to prove it.

Here's Beethoven's Third at 190 BPM:

As fast as this feels, it's only slightly faster than Beethoven wanted it performed -- he marked it at 180 BPM.

For Beethoven's Fifth, we couldn't resist trying to break a land speed it is at 160 BPM (Beethoven wanted it at 108):

While we're at it, here's a playlist of different versions of Beethoven's Fifth. We unscientifically determined the tempo of a few of these with a metronome while listening to the same passage played by the Brooklyn Philharmonic players (log in to Spotify to use the player):


  • 88 BPM: Arthur Nikisch conducting the Berlin Philharmonic
  • 102-4 BMP: Glenn Gould
  • 105 BMP: Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra
  • 109 BMP: John Eliot Gardiner with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

And...the one that seemed to land exactly on Beethoven's chosen tempo of 108 was Walter Murphy's "Fifth of Beethoven," from the movie "Saturday Night Fever."

We'll leave you with one last (blazingly awful in a wonderful kind of way) version...

Thanks to Megan Tan for help compiling this speedy playlist.


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Comments [16]

Rebecca from San Diego

Did anyone else notice the pitch change between the Toscanini version and it's follower, Gardiner? I played it twice and, having great relative pitch, not perfect, found it mystifying.

Feb. 03 2018 05:46 PM
David Irish from Boston

You may have received something like this from other people, but here is my artificially-created Speedthoven 5th Symphony.

The hardest part was actually filling up the video with pictures. I used Audacity, which is a free open-source audio editing suite. Enjoy!

Dec. 28 2013 07:22 AM
Mike Davis from Columbus, Ohio

For Johnny O: Correct spelling is Vierordt's law.

Dec. 02 2013 12:05 PM

A most fascinating show, especially to someone who has played Beethoven sonatas much of her life. I couldn't help but to mention the last sonata, opus. 111. The stretching and compressing of this pieces timing and therefore dimensions is to be remarked:
One of the most important aspects is this most original instance of actual jazz rhythm in the second movement. One of the best examples of time in art.

Dec. 01 2013 01:32 AM

There is an interesting piece of electronics called DPC which stands for "Dynamic Pitch Control", I have a switch for this on my mp3 player for example. What it does is allows you to listen to things at faster or slower speeds and it will dynamically change the pitch so that it doesn't sound like the chipmunks. So, if you wanted, you could take any recording of Beethoven at whatever tempo they played it, and you could increase the speed using DPC, and this would allow you to hear it at the tempo intended by Beethoven -- without having to find superhuman musicians!

(another useful aspect of DPC is for listening to podcasts at a faster speed. Once you get used to it, you will enjoy it every bit as much as the normal speed and, in fact, even more so)

May. 02 2013 02:19 PM
Gareth Whiteley

I want it even faster!

Apr. 09 2013 05:08 AM
Sarah from Seattle, WA

Maybe this link was already made in the episode but I missed it and was intrigued...our natural tempo, the "point of indifference," is about the same speed as the human heart beat, no? It makes sense that we would default to following our own, internal metronome.
As a side note, I remember having to practice piano with a metronome when I was younger, and there were few things I found more detestable!

Mar. 09 2013 05:02 PM

Johnny O, see (Karl von Vierordt)

Anyone, see for Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Thank you David Henderson. Could you briefly explain the software/process that you used, or do the same work on a 160bpm version?

Mar. 06 2013 06:34 PM
Johnny O

Has anyone ever heard of Fiords' (Fjord's ?sp) Law? Can't find anything about it on the interweb.

Mar. 05 2013 09:25 AM
Todd Williams

This reminds me of the piece Nine Beet Stretch by Leif Inge, a recording of Beethoven's 9th stretched to exactly 24 hours and corrected for pitch. The first ten minutes of the piece don't even get past the first chord change.

Mar. 01 2013 08:05 PM
Geekoid from Oregon

Hearing the 5th at 108 gave me chills. Hearing that small bit at 160 gave me chills and I teared up. Never have I heard anything to give me that emotional response. I would love to hear the whole piece at 160, even if it had to be performed in pieces and edited together.

The attempts to because away his notes sounded like every other excuse you hear when someone finds out something they have been raised to believe is wrong.
The idea Beethoven couldn't keep accurate time in his head seems unlikely.
Does Robert play an instrument? him being off sound just ,like beginner drummer who haven't quit learned to time it takes to swing the stick to hit on the beat.

Great episode and thank you for doing it.

Feb. 27 2013 09:58 AM
Manfred Krifka from Berlin, Germany

There is a piece that is rather the opposite of speedy Beethoven: John Cage's Organ^2/ASLAP "As Slow as Possible". This tempo instraction was taken very seriously when a performance started in the St. Burchardi Church in Halberstadt, Germany, in 2001, which is scheduled to run for 639 years. During its first twelve years the performance was getting increasingly popular; the note changes that typically happen every few months are public events that are commented in newspapers. The time and place was chosen because 639 years before the start of the performance, the first permanent organ ever was installed in the Halberstadt cathedral. See for information and links. Perhaps worth a Radiolab episode?

Feb. 23 2013 06:22 PM
ChuckBoody from Minneapolis, MN

Interesting "sped up to 108" version in the comments. The problem with that is that the playing was not precise at the slower tempo and so is even less precise at 108. This whole issue has been around for a long time and the "period instrument" folks (like John Eliot Gardiner mentioned above) have been producing recordings close to the metronome tempi for some time. Early on Toscanni was often criticized for his "too fast" tempi in Beethoven and with many other composers works, but current knowledge says he was much closer to "right" than most of his contemporaries. Historically there seems to be a very general speeding up of the tempi. It will be interesting to see what happens to that in the future, since we seem now to be moving slightly toward more "romantic" attitudes in interpretation.

Feb. 22 2013 10:31 PM
David Henderson from Columbia, Missouri

After hearing Radiolab's wonderful piece, I briefly became obsessed with hearing Beethoven's 5th at the speed he noted on his work (in it's entirety). So I looked up the sheet music and counted a total of 624 (I could have miscounted) measures in the piece; half notes equals 108 beats per minute (according to Beethoven and Radiolab). So therefore, excluding the time added by 10 fermatas, the piece should last about 347 seconds. Adding some time to account for the fermatas, I would guesstimate the piece to last a little over 6 minutes at 108 beats per minute (without fermatas, the piece should conclude at 5 minutes and 47 seconds).

I then copied an open source piece (no copyright enforcement), cleaned it up a little and rendered this:

It's Beethoven's 5th Symphony, First movement: Allegro con brio, ~ 6 minutes play time and my best estimate for 108bpm. Free to download; not copyrighted.

Feb. 22 2013 06:02 PM
Steve from Millersville, PA

Beat, yes, but I take it Beet comes from Beethoven.

Feb. 22 2013 01:30 AM

Am I missing something? Do you mean "beat"? Where is the vegetable?

Feb. 21 2013 08:53 PM

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