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Looking at the score for Beethoven's 9th symphony, it surprises me how the second movement is written in a breakneck 3/4 at 116 dotted half notes per minute.

Why did Beethoven opt for this 3/4, rather than halving all notes values and going with 3/8 at 116 dotted quarter notes per minute?

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    As a clarification, are you asking specifically about Beethoven's thinking, or are you asking more generally why a composer might choose 3/4 vs. 3/8?
    – Aaron
    Feb 8 at 20:35
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    By the way, notice the "Ritmo di tre battute" on p 88, and "di quattro" later. Each of these measures of 3/4 will be conducted/played as "one," and Beethoven is indicating a "hypermeter" here, that the measures fall into groups of three or of four. This gets into distinctions between what's convenient for notation and what the music is actually perceived as... Feb 8 at 21:03
  • Have you checked to manuscript to see what Beethoven actually wrote? Otherwise it’s possible an editor changed 3/8 to 3/4. Feb 8 at 21:14
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    If we don't have one, we need a canonical question on the oft-wondered question of how come slow movements are written with short notes and fast movements with long notes...
    – AakashM
    Feb 9 at 9:50
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    @ToddWilcox this is Beethoven's original meter. See imslp.org/wiki/Special:ImagefromIndex/19389/putr
    – phoog
    Feb 9 at 12:13

3 Answers 3

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Because it is a Scherzo. In Beethoven's time, a Scherzo was expected to be a "light-hearted" and fast-moving humourous composition in the rounded-binary form. It had some characteristics, but three chief ones were as follows:

  1. It had to be short, and preferably a (the third) movement in a larger opus
  2. It had to be in 3/4 time
  3. It had to be fast, sometimes blindingly fast

And so he chose to go along with the convention and respect it. Beethoven has written some more Scherzi before this, starting with the 3rd movement of his Piano Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op 2 No. 2 published in 1796. You can find the same characteristics in that. Or the 3rd movement of the Piano Sonata No. 3 in in C Major, Op 2 No. 3. Of course, variations to this form began to appear later, and the rules began to be broken once in a while, but the form endured.

So, by convention, 3/4 was the right choice. However, Beethoven wanted more. The difference between 3/4 and 3/8 is on the emphasis. In 3/4 you have three quarter notes, and each quarter note is a beat, and the emphasis is on every one of them. In 3/8, you have three 8th notes instead, and the emphasis is on the first beat only.
His desire to respect and defy the convention at the same time however can be observed in the choice to embellish the first beat of every bar by adding that flute note at the top which makes it sound like a 3/8 composition, with the emphasis on the first beat. This was very novel at the time and can still thrill today, nearly 200 years later.

You can read more about the form here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scherzo

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  • 3/8 is a simple meter, not a compound meter. Therefore, its emphasis is on every single 8th note, not just the first one. This is just like 3/4 time having emphasis on every single quarter note.
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 15 at 3:18
  • There are lots of pieces written in 3/4 with only one beat in each bar because of a fast speed. Fast waltzes as an example. Similar you can find slow pieces in 3/8. You won't know by listening to a piece of music whether it is notated in 3/8 or 3/4. But because of conventions you will assume that certain types of pieces are 3/4. Chopin wrote one waltz in 3/8 which is uncommon. All the other waltzes he wrote are 3/4. Feb 18 at 23:53
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The conventional structure for a symphony or sonata in the Classical period was four movements, of which the inner two are a slow movement and a minuet & trio. The minuet & trio movement is written in 3/4. One way the fashion changed was for the minuet & trio to be played much faster than anyone could dance a minuet to.

An example is the third movement of Beethoven's Symphony 1 in C, op. 21. This is to be played very fast --- Breitkopf's score gives it the metronome mark of a bar to 108. However, Beethoven calls it a minuet (using the spelling Menuetto, which is neither the German Menuett nor the Italian minuetto), and accordingly notates it in 3/4.

Later, it became usual to call such a movement a Scherzo. It's just that it never became usual to notate in dotted crotchets (quarters). The convention to notate in dotted minims (halves) had already been established.

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  • I normally see "Menuetto" where a tempo marking would be - often not where the title would be. (I also see "Scherzo" in the tempo marking some of the time, and one notable time, I even also saw "Furiant".)
    – Dekkadeci
    Feb 15 at 13:50
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Convention. And because music notated with an 8th beat is not automatically twice as fast as music notated with a quarter beat. For instance marches were traditionally written in 2/4 time, nowadays they're quite likely to be notated in 'cut time' 2/2. This doesn't mean marches used to be twice as fast.

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    Another possible reason: to reduce the need to write beams and flags. Beethoven's manuscript is messy, and writing in 3/8 would have made it messier still. I also get the impression that his hand had trouble keeping up with his thoughts; that problem would be less pronounced in 3/4 than in 3/8.
    – phoog
    Feb 9 at 12:49
  • @phoog the 'beams and flags'-explanation is interesting, although I assume Beethoven could have instructed the publisher/editor of his music to 'convert' the music to 3/8 if he'd really wanted them to.
    – Niek
    Feb 10 at 8:51
  • @Niek if the choice of meter were that important I suppose he would have just written it out that way. It's not as though he avoided beams wherever possible (the second movement of the fifth symphony is an example). Then again, this movement has a lot more notes than that one.
    – phoog
    Feb 10 at 9:20

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