- The Psychophysical Ear: Musical Experiments, Experimental Sounds, 1840–1910 by Alexandra Hui
If you are looking for a book to stimulate a conversation between musicologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, historians of science, and maybe a philosopher or two at your next faculty party, this might be it.
Hui, an Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University and UCLA Ph.D., looks at the “formative moment” in the mid- to late nineteenth century when music and natural science in the German-speaking world intersected in a variety of ways in the quest to understand sound and the sensation of hearing, the “psychophysics of sound.” Hui argues that during this moment, sound and music were considered coterminous; scientists and musicologists alike tended to assume that sound = music. Furthermore, their understanding of the psychophysics of sound was deeply influenced by their understanding of (Western) music: the psychophysical investigation of sound was thus always also an aesthetic project, and the worlds of physics and music overlapped to a remarkable degree. She further argues that not only was the nineteenth-century study of the sense of hearing and the nature of sound “framed in terms of musical aesthetics,” but that this only increased as time went on, because of a shift in emphasis toward the experience of the individual listener in musicology, combined with a similar move in the scientific community to the investigation of the subjective, individual perception of sound. Yet toward the end of the nineteenth century, Hui concludes with the breakdown of the symbiosis between science and music, pointing to developments in both the scientific and music worlds. In science, she points to a shift away from an understanding that musical training was necessary for the scientist and a move toward more statistically-based research, while in the world of musicology, she cites an increasing challenge to the primacy of Western music aesthetics and the Western tonal system from both the growing exposure to non-Western and non-classical (folk) music, and the “destabilization of the Western tonal system” due, paradoxically, to a more scientific understanding of sound. Hui posits a growing general social disengagement and preoccupation with experimentation in most of the natural sciences at the end of the nineteenth century, yet she holds that the study of sound followed an opposite dynamic, and grew more entwined with other disciplines as it came to focus more and more on the personal, subjective experience of sound.
The book is divided into five chapters with a final “Coda,” which briefly brings the nineteenth-century study of sound into the present day and provides welcome modern context. Each of the five chapters is a separate and overlapping case study. Chapter One looks at Gustav Fechner and the origins of psychophysics, while Chapter Two examines the new musical aesthetics of A. B. Marx, Eduard Hanslick, and Hugo [End Page 179] Reimann. The third chapter focuses on Hermann Helmholz and his interest in both the psychophysics of sound and music aesthetics. The fourth chapter describes the work of Ernst Mach and his friendship with Eduard Kulke, while the final chapter explores the debate between Wilhelm Wundt and Carl Stumpf as a way of getting at the changes in both psychophysics and musicology at the fin de siècle.
There is a useful glossary of technical musicological terms, though those who read musical notation and have a firm grounding in music theory will profit most from the book. Unfortunately, the standard of editing could have been higher, and there are several typos in the German.
Hui is able to demonstrate a remarkable intersection between musicology and the natural sciences in the second half of the nineteenth century, as both groups struggled to discover the nature of sound and music. She does a tremendous job in showing both the conceptual and personal interconnections between the worlds of music and science, and she even captures some of the personal drama around the individuals involved. The writing is clear and engaging, despite the often highly technical nature of the subject matter...