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The Psychophysical Ear

The Psychophysical Ear: Musical Experiments, Experimental Sounds, 1840-1910

Alexandra Hui
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Psychophysical Ear
    Book Description:

    In the middle of the nineteenth century, German and Austrian concertgoers began to hear new rhythms and harmonies as non-Western musical ensembles began to make their way to European cities and classical music introduced new compositional trends. At the same time, leading physicists, physiologists, and psychologists were preoccupied with understanding the sensory perception of sound from a psychophysical perspective, seeking a direct and measurable relationship between physical stimulation and physical sensation. These scientists incorporated specific sounds into their experiments--the musical sounds listened to by upper middle class, liberal Germans and Austrians. In The Psychophysical Ear, Alexandra Hui examines this formative historical moment, when the worlds of natural science and music coalesced around the psychophysics of sound sensation, and new musical aesthetics were interwoven with new conceptions of sound and hearing. Hui, a historian and a classically trained musician, describes the network of scientists, musicians, music critics, musicologists, and composers involved in this redefinition of listening. She identifies a source of tension for the psychophysicists: the seeming irreconcilability between the idealist, universalizing goals of their science and the increasingly undeniable historical and cultural contingency of musical aesthetics. The convergence of the respective projects of the psychophysical study of sound sensation and the aesthetics of music was, however, fleeting. By the beginning of the twentieth century, with the professionalization of such fields as experimental psychology and ethnomusicology and the proliferation of new and different kinds of music, the aesthetic dimension of psychophysics began to disappear.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30595-2
    Subjects: Music, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xxii)

    On a chilly winter evening in 1871, the young professor of experimental physics Ernst Mach delivered a public lecture on symmetry to the rapt audience of theDeutsches Kasinoin Prague. He explained that repetition of sensations was a source of pleasant feeling. The pleasing effect of visual symmetry was due to this repetition of sensations reflected across an axis. Though this was in part related to the specific structure of the eye, the sense of symmetry must also be “deeply rooted in other parts of the organism by ages of practice,” because, for example, an individual’s taste in art...

  5. 1 Gustav Fechner, the Day View, and the Origins of Psychophysics
    (pp. 1-22)

    Every one of the individuals involved in psychophysical studies of sound sensation from the middle of the nineteenth century on into the twentieth, responded to the accomplishments of Ernst Heinrich Weber and Gustav Fechner. Their work, Fechner’s especially, provided an empirical framework for psychophysics as a potential means of collecting quantitative data on the processes of sensory perception. Carl Stumpf described Fechner and Weber as “great men, genuine scientific investigators” who had made lasting impressions on him.² He saw his own work on tone differentiation at the end of the nineteenth century as a defense of the applicability of the...

  6. 2 From Sonically Moving Forms to Inaudible Undertones: The New Musical Aesthetics of A. B. Marx, Eduard Hanslick, and Hugo Riemann
    (pp. 23-54)

    The German-speaking musical world in the middle of the nineteenth century was highly unstable. New tuning systems, new tones, new music theories, and the fledgling discipline of musicology all jostled to establish position. The transition from earlier forms of tuning to equal temperament meant the pitches themselves were not fixed, neither standardized between instruments nor within individual ones. Later, a growing interest in non-Western music introduced entirely new sounds.

    This sonically unstable world put new demands on the listener. The musicologist Lawrence Kramer argues that autonomous music had also created its own aesthetic crisis of sorts.² The elimination of the...

  7. 3 Sound Materialized and Music Reconciled: Hermann Helmholtz
    (pp. 55-88)

    Hermann Helmholtz was a master of physiology, physics, and mathematics. His dominance in all three disciplines as well as his more thoughtful, philosophical writings were cherished and promoted as emblematic of the successes of the maturing German university system. As a young scientist in the 1840s, Helmholtz was one of the founding members of the Berlin Physical Society. The reformist goals of this group—an emphasis on an empirical approach to knowledge in German academia and a liberalized and modernized Prussian state—were incorporated into much of Helmholtz’s science.³ In his work on sound sensation in particular, much of it...

  8. 4 The Aesthetics of Attention: Ernst Mach’s Accommodation Experiments, His Psychophysical Musical Aesthetics, and His Friendship with Eduard Kulke
    (pp. 89-122)

    In 1863, while visiting a Viennese café, the young physicist Ernst Mach was drawn into a lively discussion among musicians over the nature of musical tones. These rowdy and informal café gatherings were a regular occurrence and Mach continued to frequent them, often presiding over affairs.² When later recounting his initial encounter with the group, Mach recalled that he had chosen to side with the music critic Eduard Kulke due to his more sober, morewissenschaftlichposition on sound sensation.³

    The others at the café were likely the circle of Viennese Wagnerians within which Kulke moved, musicians and composers, most...

  9. 5 The Bias of Musikbewusstsein When Listening in the Laboratory, on the City Streets, and in the Field
    (pp. 123-148)

    Thus far this book as been an examination of how new musical aesthetics intertwined with new conceptions of sound and new conceptions of hearing. From the 1840s through the first decade of the twentieth century, the exploration of the sensory perception of sound was intimately related to a series of shifts that occurred in both science and music. The earliest forms of psychophysical study of sound sensation mobilized the unique measurement capabilities of psychophysics to make universal claims about the processes of hearing. By the end of the nineteenth century, in both music circles and psychophysical circles, the study and...

  10. Coda
    (pp. 149-154)

    In May 1943, in the coastal mountains of Los Angeles, Thomas Mann began work on his opusDoctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend. The friend—Serenus Zeitblom, symbolic of German Apollonian humanism—documents Leverkühn’s Faustian bargain. In exchange for creative genius, Leverkühn intentionally contracts syphilis. After achieving greatness with extraordinary, atonal compositions he descends into a Dionysian darkness brought on by the untreated spirochete.

    Zeitblom and Leverkühn were born in a small town in Thuringia in the 1880s to upper-middle-class families. Their youths bore all the trappings that such status would...

  11. Appendix: Musical Terms and Musical Notation
    (pp. 155-156)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 157-206)
  13. References
    (pp. 207-224)
  14. Index
    (pp. 225-234)