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  • The Psychophysical Ear: Musical Experiments, Experimental Sounds, 1840–1910 by Alexandra Hui
  • David Cahan (bio)
The Psychophysical Ear: Musical Experiments, Experimental Sounds, 1840–1910. By Alexandra Hui. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2012. Pp. x+234. $34.

The field of psychophysics is usually seen as a branch of experimental psychology, and the early history of psychophysics (from its origins in the mid-nineteenth century) is usually seen as constituting the beginnings of “scientific” psychology. Alexandra Hui, by contrast, argues that the history of psychophysics during its first decades (1840–1910) was also intimately tied to the making and hearing of experimental sounds and to the musical instruments by which they were created. Her study places great emphasis on the musical instruments and apparatus that a few central scientific figures created (or had created for them), and on the important role of musical aesthetics. She concentrates attention on the well-known psychophysical work of Gustav Fechner, Hermann Helmholtz, Ernst Mach, Wilhelm Wundt, and Carl Stumpf, as well as on the musical aesthetics of Helmholtz, Mach, and Stumpf, and on that of music critics A. B. Marx, Eduard Hanslick, Hugo Riemann, and Eduard Kulke. The result is a fresh but brief and episodic study in which “the psychophysical ear,” and not experimental psychology, stands at the center of historical attention.

Hui stresses the various roles of musical (and other acoustical) instruments, physical and physiological acoustics, and musical aesthetics in shaping psychophysics (before 1910), in particular how various experiments in sound creation and perception helped shaped what she calls the psychophysical ear. Instead of being concerned with psychophysics’ role in shaping the history of psychology, Hui looks instead at psychophysics as a practice and viewpoint that was historically contingent on the material and cultural history of liberal, musically oriented, upper-middle-class German and Austrian scientists and musical critics. To what extent, she asks, did the laws of physics and physiology clash with the contingency (both historical and cultural) of musical aesthetics as practice and theory?

She argues that psychophysics became increasingly attached to the study of the sensory perception of sound. In the course of the period 1840–1910, the new psychophysicists (i.e., Helmholtz, Mach, Wundt, and Stumpf) went [End Page 256] from studying the perception of the threshold of sound to the process of hearing itself, and finally to an individual subject’s sound experience. They did all this, Hui argues, within the context of musical aesthetics. Her viewpoint runs, of course, against the grain of our broad view of the natural sciences as moving increasingly away from an individual’s subjective experience and toward more general, abstract laws.

Both a much older historiographical tradition (initiated by G. Stanley Hall and Edwin Boring) and a far more modern and sophisticated version (led by Mitchell Ash, Kurt Danziger, and others) emphasized psychophysics as a central pathway to the emergence of psychology as an experimental science and thus as essential to appreciating modern-day psychology. Hui, by contrast, seeks to show that the first psychophysicists had rather different goals or at least used means that have not been fully appreciated. In fact, she is not much interested in psychology per se. Instead, she emphasizes the high value that the first psychophysicists placed on the classical musical culture in which they were trained and which they practiced and experienced (i.e., the “possession” of a well-trained musical ear); on the role of musical (and other) instruments in creating and hearing sounds (i.e., the material culture); on appreciating and using musical aesthetics; and on the impact on the psychophysicists of the recent introduction of non-Western music as a challenge to their understanding of music.

Hui’s emphasis on technology and culture (as regards the creation of sounds and of sound perception) is part of a recent historiographical approach that includes the work of Elfrieda and Erwin Hiebert, Myles Jackson, David Pantalony, Emily Thompson, and others. These authors (and now Hui) place greater emphasis on the roles of instruments and acoustics in the historical understanding of sound perception and of music. On the other hand, Hui’s study also belongs to another recent historiographical tradition, one that variously emphasizes the historical...


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