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  • Hearing Spaces: Architecture and Acoustic Experience in Modernist German Literature
  • Kata Gellen (bio)

Well before the great nineteenth-century scientist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894) published On the Sensations of Tone (1860), a groundbreaking work on the physical and physiological basis of musical effects, acousticians had proven that the perception of sound requires a medium.1 Whether conceived as particles or waves, sound is material, and thus must be borne by a physical element, such as air or water. Helmholtz radicalized this point in the opening pages of his work: since a stimulus causes particles of air (Lufttheilchen) to vibrate, and those vibrations produce a sensation in our ears (a musical tone or noise), the individual particles of air are themselves what we call sound.2 The medium is literally the message.3

The study of physical acoustics, which would later come to include architectural acoustics, deals with the external space in which acts of hearing take place, as opposed to physiological acoustics, which is concerned more intimately with the ear and the nerve sensations it receives, and psychological acoustics, which examines the mental process of transforming an auditory sensation into an image or concept. The medium connects the vibrating body and the ear, and the mind transforms these auditory sensations (Gehörempfindungen) into perceptions (Vorstellungen). Consequently, physical and physiological acoustics must be attentive to the setting in which sounds are produced and perceived, since this space gives form to the medium. To ignore the space of hearing is to ignore the sounds themselves, since they are not only conditioned by, but consist in the space in which they are heard. The process of generating sounds [End Page 799] involves the subtle alteration of spatial composition; these transformations are what we perceive when we hear. Such slight changes to spatial configuration are invisible and usually intangible—though certain loud and deep sounds, such as a bass line, can generate palpable vibrations in the whole body—but they are sensible to the ear.4 At a limit, audition could be defined as the perception of otherwise insensible transformations of space.

On the Sensations of Tone was essential to scientific and musical research on sense perception, not least because it was one of the earliest treatises on sound and space. Before the mid-1800s, there were of course splendid examples of acoustically successful buildings (churches, theaters, opera houses), but few theories to explain why certain structures had “good sound” while others did not.5 Helmholtz’s interest in the spatial determination of auditory perception paved the way for Harvard physics professor Wallace Sabine (1868–1919), the so-called father of architectural acoustics, whose early work was devoted to solving the difficulties of understanding speech in university auditoria. Helmholtz also broke ground by trying to establish the scientific principles behind possibly the most abstract form of art, music. In this too he must be considered a precursor to Sabine, who designed Boston’s celebrated Symphony Hall, which opened in 1900. This was the first building designed according to acoustical laws and with the help of mathematical formulas for such phenomena as reverberation and the transmission of sound through walls (SM, 4, 13–57). If for Sabine the shape, size, and material of building were of paramount concern, for Helmholtz it was above all human physiology that determined auditory processes. Together, their work can be understood to stand for a thorough reimagining of the relationship between sound and space—both bodily and architectural—in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Helmholtz’s work on acoustics immediately preceded the invention of numerous electro-acoustic devices, such as the loudspeaker (Siemens, 1874), the telephone (Bell, 1876) and the phonograph (Edison, 1877), and Sabine’s work coincided with the rise of radio broadcasting (c. 1920) and the invention of sound film (mid-1920s), not to mention the widespread use of the devices invented at the end of the previous century. This convergence of theoretical and practical developments in the realm of acoustics made their work all the more resonant. People were experiencing sound in radically new ways at a time when the scientific, musical, and architectural discourses of sound were redefining the way it was conceived...


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pp. 799-818
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