Ear and Instrument

Ear and Instrument—Hermann v. Helmholtz’s “On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music”

Julia Kursell


[Large apparatus after Helmholtz for compounding timbres of ten different harmonies artificially and recording the sounds for the simultaneous production of a series of simple notes, that form a variety of harmonies]

This project investigated the relation of psycho-physiological research and musicological theory. It considered music as an experimental setup in its own right, tracing the changes in the aesthetics of music brought forth by physiological research. The point of departure was Hermann von Helmholtz's On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music, first published in 1863.

In this work, Helmholtz developed a theory of hearing, according to which the ear functions as a measuring instrument, analyzing complex waveforms and resolving them into their sinusoidal components. Instrument makers, just like musicians and composers, are guided in their work by this activity of the ear, and therefore a tacit, empirical knowledge is enclosed in their products: ear and instrument are connected by more than just a metaphor. Helmholtz perceived the piano to be a reconstruction of the ear, and likewise, the ear’s functioning is theorized based on the model of the piano.

Furthermore, Helmholtz reproduced the rules of music theory and the history of music by means of experimentation, just as the teaching of orchestration involves extensive self-description of music as an experiment. Step by step, the European tradition of music had, as it were, explored its own physiological conditions, and so the distinctions between major and minor, or consonance and dissonance, corroborated the physiological theory of hearing. Based on the physiology of hearing and the knowledge of musical instruments, a new theory of music was expected once again to demonstrate the unity of art and nature.

But this circularity of technology, physiology, and aesthetics, of musical instruments, experimental setups, and the theory of music, calls forth effects that reach far beyond this circle. The experimental setups used by Helmholtz produced new sounds—sounds not provided for by nineteenth-century music, and the very aesthetics of music used to prove the physiological theory of hearing eventually collapsed under the scientific explanation.

If Helmholtz left it to aesthetics to draw the line between sound and music, the music of the twentieth century, in the wake of Helmholtz, is known to have abandoned this distinction. The Sensations of Tone points toward aesthetic experiments whose outcome remains open.

Funding Institutions

Dilthey Fellowship
Volkswagen Stiftung