Poster The Moon
A view taken from the Moroccan capital Rabat on July 13, 2014, shows a full moon, with volcanic domes and impact craters.
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Deep Cuts

Tension and release: The strange magic of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

A lot of music that's designed for relaxation — the kind that would be classified as meditation or new age music — is actually quite boring. In an effort to create calming, soothing sounds, this type of music lacks any tension.

By contrast, Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, which he titled "Quasi una Fantasia (Almost a Fantasy)," is filled with discord — which is exactly what makes it so effective as a piece of music that can help you relax.

I was first introduced to the piece, popularly known as the "Moonlight Sonata," by a friend who was designing the sound for a one-woman show I was creating. My friend suggested the first movement of the sonata for a cathartic moment of the play. Ever since, the Moonlight Sonata has been a piece of music that I've gone back to when I'm feeling anxiety or when I'm going through an emotional period.

That might seem illogical, but let me explain. I liken the experience to one of my favorite relaxation exercises, where you lie on your back and create tension in various points of your body. First you squeeze your toes, then your calves, then your thighs, and so on. Using your muscles to create this momentary tightness helps them to release afterwards. When I can't fall asleep it helps a lot.

The Moonlight Sonata works much in the same way. In the first movement, which is my favorite, the broken minor chords played with the right hand countered with the octaves played with the left evoke a lulling sadness. It creates a melancholic mood that sweeps over you before the melody begins in earnest, with a murmuring, almost desperate ache. There's this sense of relief but also anticipation about what will happen next.

The melody is so simple, but it builds and builds, conjuring imagery that will differ for each person listening to it. The balance between anxiety and composure provides an emotional ride that ultimately provides a sense of release. It reminds you that even during the uncertain moments in life, it's going to be all right in the end.

Perhaps it's the Moonlight Sonata's inherent drama (I mean, hey, it's Beethoven) that the music is used so often in films. Sid and Nancy, Misery, Immortal Beloved, Crimson Tide, and The Pianist are just a few examples. The music provides the perfect element of conflict and resolution to accompany a narrative, especially at an emotional peak.

It is for that reason that I am drawn to this piece of music when I'm feeling upset or unsettled. It helps me reach inside and find that knot of despair or unhappiness and let it escape.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based writer.

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