Thesis ID: CBB001561163

Hearing Sound as Music: Psychophysical Studies of Sound Sensation and the Music Culture of Germany, 1860--1910 (2008)


Hui, Alexandra (Author)

University of California, Los Angeles
Wise, M. Norton

Publication Date: 2008
Edition Details: Advisor: Wise, M. Norton
Physical Details: 200 pp.
Language: English

In the middle of the nineteenth-century, the worlds of natural science and music coalesced in a little-known yet formative moment that remains virtually untouched by historians of science. The potent interaction of psychophysical studies of sound sensation with the music culture of late nineteenth-century Germany contributed to new theories as well as a new awareness of the historical and cultural contingency of sensory perceptions. My work, by addressing the rich relationship between natural science and music, supplements current histories of psychophysics by highlighting one of its critical cultural contexts. I examine how the practice of psychophysics--loosely defined as the relation between physical stimulation and psychical sensation--in this period was always directed towards answering aesthetic questions. A psychophysical study of sound sensation was also a study of musical aesthetics. I demonstrate the many ways in which the musical aesthetics of the psychophysical investigators--E. H. Weber, Gustav Fechner, Hermann von Helmholtz, Ernst Mach, Wilhelm Wundt, and Carl Stumpf--informed their studies of sound sensation. Their engagement with the music world was social, cultural, and intellectual. I show how for the psychophysical investigators, music was no longer treated as just an object of psychophysical study but also a means of psychophysical study. Further, changes in the Western tuning system, composers' increasing interest in atonal music, and the introduction of the new sounds of non-Western music threatened to undermine both the conception of sound sensation as universal as well as Western musical aesthetics as the most fully-evolved. The new sounds contributed to the psychophysical investigators' increasingly historicist understandings of both musical aesthetics and sound sensation as they attempted to reconcile universal laws of sound sensation with musical aesthetics required. In the end, the disappearance of the aesthetic dimension of psychophysics was reflected in and reinforced by both the professionalization of such disciplines as experimental psychology and musicology as well as the proliferation of new and different musical aesthetics at the beginning of the twentieth-century.


Description Cited in Diss. Abstr. Int. A 70/02 (2009). Pub. no. AAT 3346987.

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Authors & Contributors
Kursell, Julia
Zudini, Verena
Robinson, David K.
Hui, Alexandra
Schreier, Wolfgang
Baumgartner, Wilhelm
History of Psychology
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
NTM: Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften, Technik und Medizin
Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Annals of Science: The History of Science and Technology
Verlag J. H. Röll
Sentinel Open Press
MIT Press
State University of New York at Binghamton
University of Toronto
Oxford University Press
Experimental psychology
Science and culture
Auditory perception
Fechner, Gustav Theodor
Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von
Stumpf, Carl
Mach, Ernst
Weber, Ernst Heinrich
Weber, Wilhelm Eduard
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, early
18th century
20th century
United States
Great Britain

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