Nietzsche’s Tuning Fork

Nietzsche’s Tuning Fork

Steven Lydon

Helmholtz, 1870

Tuning fork. Hermann von Helmholtz, Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik, 3rd ed. Braunschweig: Vieweg, 1870, 33.

The preface of Nietzsche’s Götzen-Dämmerung oder Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert (1889) reveals that the eponymous hammer is not a weapon, but a “tuning fork” used to “sound out” idols. Although many have tried to explain this title, its meaning remains uncertain. A clue lies in one of Nietzsche’s earliest works. In “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinne” (1873), Nietzsche describes the incapacity of knowledge to traverse sense experience. To expect truth from language, Nietzsche claims, is absurd: this would be tantamount to a deaf man seeing Chladni’s sound figures, and then claiming to “know” what sound is. But what is Nietzsche’s physical understanding of sound, and what role does the tuning fork play in it?

This early reference suggests a path forward. As part of his foray into the vibrations of two and three-dimensional bodies, Chladni was the first person systematically to investigate the instrument’s acoustical properties. He discovered that its idiosyncratic qualities also lent themselves to scientific experiment: namely, a purity of tone and resistance to modulation. These pioneering efforts supplied the basis for the national standardization of pitch. Yet Chladni’s scientific utilization of the tuning fork develops an aesthetic correlate; he invents a new musical instrument named the “euphone.” Chladni’s tuning fork is therefore situated on the boundaries of art and science; this explains Nietzsche’s adoption of the instrument in Götzen-Dämmerung, which requires further exposition.