Beethoven, Viral Marketing, and Fur Elise

Viral marketing is supposedly the new kid on the marketing block, what with social networking and computers and Blackberries and Tweets. Only, it turns out that there’s nothing new about viral marketing.

To the contrary, consider Ludwig van Beethoven and a simple piece of classical music.

When a Song Goes Viral

For two hundred years, students have been coming into piano teachers’ studios begging to play it. They live in homes without a single recording of classical music. They think Beethoven is the name of a big cartoon dog. They can barely play three correct notes in a row. They don’t know the name of the song they want to play. Neither do their parents. They can’t remember where they heard it. They don’t even like to practice piano, but they will, they promise, if they get to play this one song.


These nine notes pass from one student to another like swine flu, the newest rumor about the principal, or a bad knock-knock joke. What is it about Fur Elise? Certainly, piano teachers don’t know the answer. There are other pieces kids love, but many of them are short and easy, like Heart and Soul or Chopsticks. Fur Elise is hard. It takes weeks to learn (sometimes months, if a student prematurely attempts the unabridged version).

“You can’t play it yet,” the teacher says. “It’s too hard.”

Usually, students recoil from the words “it’s hard” like a vampire recoils from daylight. But not this time.

“Pleeeeaze,” the student pleads. “I’ll practice every day. I promise.”

Be honest, wouldn’t every company like its products to be received with such desperate enthusiasm? And consider this: This is happening 200 years after the product was created.

Ten Things Beethoven Must Have Known About Selling His Songs

So what is it about this piece of music, or anything, really, that makes it so immediately appealing, so catchy, so viral? What did Beethoven know?

  1. It’s all about the hook. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it strong. Make it memorable. Nine notes, and everyone recognizes it.
  2. Don’t be afraid of saying things twice. The main motif in Fur Elise comes back at least a dozen times. Put the message out there, then say it again.
  3. Get the kids hooked. Let a producer of kid shows do a children’s biographical film. Get it in the schools. If the kids love it, maybe they’ll love something else later on. The Moonlight Sonata, perhaps. Maybe they’ll shell out for the Symphony. Or want to learn to play the Hammerklavier.
  4. Don’t be afraid of new media, and don’t be stuffy. Sell the rights to a Peanuts cartoon. Let the theme go on a cell phone ringer program. If the audience hears it in a commercial, they’ll recognize it in a concert. Maybe they’ll check out what else this guy wrote.
  5. Bury the complicated stuff. Make the opening ring, draw them in. Then hit them with more. Not everyone will buy into the more complex ideas, but some will.
  6. Use a ringer. That most successful and talented student who is up to every challenge and can’t wait to play for a group of people? Teach it to her.
  7. Don’t underestimate word-of-mouth. Not even piano teachers can name a prominent artist who has recorded Fur Elise. It’s never played in “real” piano concerts. The big boys ignore it, but it’s all over Youtube and piano recitals.
  8. Have a mysterious love story in there somewhere. Who was this Elise anyway? After 200 years, scholars only think they know. Keep them guessing.
  9. Being temperamental, tragic, and having a dodgy personal life help sell stuff. They always did.
  10. Don’t ride on the laurels: Keep creating good work. The audience will come back for more.

Case studies are used in business schools to learn from other people’s failures and successes. Beethoven is not usually cited as a mastermind of the business world. But perhaps he should be.

3 thoughts on “Beethoven, Viral Marketing, and Fur Elise”

  1. Ah, but there is a wonderful recording (and recent) of Leon Fleisher playing Fur Elise. I always make students listen to it before beginning to learn the piece.

  2. Thanks Debbie! Your comment sent me to YouTube, where I also found one of Ivo Pogorelich playing it. Not great quality video, but easily accessible to students.

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