Instruments of Music, Instruments of Science: Hermann von Helmholtz's Musical Practices, his Classicism, and his Beethoven Sonata
Annals of Science 68 (2):149-177 (2011)
AbstractSummary The young Hermann Helmholtz, in an 1838 letter home, declared that he always appreciated music much more when he played it for himself. Though a frequent concert-goer, and celebrated for his highly influential 1863 work on the physiological basis of music theory, Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen, it is likely that Helmholtz's enduring engagement with music began with his initial, personal experience of playing music for himself. I develop this idea, shifting the discussion of Helmholtz's work on sound sensation back to its origins, and examine the role of his material interaction with musical instruments and music itself. In his sound sensation studies, Helmholtz understood sound as an external, physical object. But Helmholtz also conceived of sound in musical terms. Further, Helmholtz's particular musical tastes as well as his deeply personal interaction with musical instruments allowed him to reconcile his conception of sound as physical object with his conception of sound as music. Helmholtz's physiological theory of sound sensation was both the product of and constitutive of how he heard and created sound. I argue that Helmholtz himself was the embodied reconciliation of his physiological theory of sound sensation and his belief that musical aesthetics were historically and culturally contingent
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