Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Vonnegut’s Story Shapes

by bxrtley



I just listened to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and it brought me back to the time I used to know how to play that piece with just as much emotion as Beethoven himself. It’s such a moving and emotional piece of music. It has just the right amount of minor chords to create the mood of solemnity and peaks of major triads that poke holes of brightness into the dark feeling that broods throughout the composition.

I have a thing for minor chords, scales and pieces. I like mentally playing or humming the major version in my head and then transposing the happy little ivory notes into the black flat keys of solemnity and meditation. It seems to elicit more of an emotion than major scales. I think it’s why I enjoy the Romantic Era of music more than any other. Musicians like Chopin and John Field take me to a place of contemplation, deep sentiment and overwhelming passion. With all of those feelings conjured up inside of me I can only well up in tears or be moved to passionately create a work of greatness or both. And Beethoven is in between the Classical Era and the Romantic Era that followed. Maybe that’s where I reside. My mind thrives in the middle of those two worlds.

Kurt Vonnegut was an American writer, who has a German lineage (Beethoven was German too). One of the things he’s well known for is his diagrams of story shapes. The typical Hollywood or Disney movie has a basic sine shape along the x and y axis. They’re simple curves that denote a character starting off normal, ending up in trouble (bottom of curve) and then resolving the story in greatness. It’s a clean-cut Act 1 Act2 and Act3 structure of a story. But Vonnegut expresses that more engaging stories require more bumps and curves. More ups and downs—like the Cinderella story.

And this is where they both meet. When I hear the Moonlight Sonata masterpiece, I see Vonnegut’s complex story shapes. I see Cinderella starting off as the down-trodden maid (down), and then meeting the prince (up), then needing a ball gown (down), then finding the fairy godmother who hooks her up with dress, makeup, glass slippers (up-up-up) then dancing with the prince (up), clock strikes 12 midnight and carriage turns into pumpkin, losing her slipper and returning back to her boring life (down-down-down-down), the prince trying to find her (down), he finds her (up), the slipper fits (up), they live happily ever after (up-up and awaay).

Vonnegut actually uses Cinderella to describe the typical Western story that illustrates an engaging narrative. I feel this when I listen to Beethoven’s sonata. Mathematically, the frequencies that create a pleasant sound (consonance) and an awkward sound (dissonance) come together in this composition and I can’t help but think of the highs, lows, consonance, dissonance, happiness and depression periods of my life.

There’s a point when even the major triads (or happy chords) in Moonlight Sonata are mixed with a dissonance that illustrates that rising to the top in life isn’t always a sweet experience. And conversely, the lows or minor chords have such a sweet, nostalgic emotion that reminds me of the times when hope shined through the darkness of my life.

Beethoven eventually became deaf, but he could see the music in his mind’s eye. It was as if he could visualize the math frequency waves of consonance and dissonance that would make such an emotional piece. Vonnegut also saw something. He noticed that the Cinderella story paralleled to the New Testament story arc—and he’s an atheist. They had the same shape. Modern and dynamic Western stories aligned with an Ancient Eastern narrative. New met Old. East met West. And in listening to Moonlight Sonata, a writer met a musician. Manuscript met composition. Words met Music. And in the middle, there’s me. There’s you.

If you haven’t listened to the Moonlight Sonata, please do. And if you already have, listen to it again. This time, envision the peaks and valleys of your life in Vonnegut’s Cinderella story shape and how they align with the major (happy, pleasant, consonant) and minor (solemn, awkward, dissonant) chords and triads of Beethoven’s musical composition.