Sounding Bodies

On the History of the Relation Between Music and the Sciences

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Alexandre Métraux, Sven Dierig

(Max Planck Institute for the History of Science 4-6 April 2002)

The domains of music (both its theoretical and practical aspects) and the sciences are interwoven in remarkable and at times inextricable ways. It would be fruitful to try to structure the historically contingent associations between these two realms in some way. One such way would be to focus on an object - the sounding body - with all of its multiple meanings.

Sounding Bodies

A glance at the dictionary reveals that a sounding body is defined as any hollow body that produces sounds through the impact of waves impinging upon it. In addition, the German word "Klangkörper" designates a body of individuals, such as an orchestra or band, who perform pieces of music together. Upon reflection, however, both definitions appear somewhat outdated and narrow. In a broader sense, sounding bodies do not only produce sounds, they also receive, transform, and store them. Hence, the human vocal apparatus connected to the language and memory regions of the brain, the electro-acoustic synthesizer in the sound studio, the microphone, the grammophone, CD-player, and loudspeaker can all be considered sounding bodies. Of special interest are "sound-storing bodies"- the sheets of music, LP record, CD, and the music file in the world wide web, in which sounds are transiently rendered silent for the purposes of storage or transport, and which depend on things completely different from (air) waves in order to reveal their effects.

If one not only takes the historically specific relations between music and the sciences into account, but also considers them under the rubric of the multiplicity of sounding bodies, traditional themes appear in a new light, and new ones begin to emerge. For example, the Pythagoren monochord tradition based on geometry and acoustics can now be reconsidered within the context of music theoreticians of the eighteenth century, who subscribed to a corpuscular notion of matter (such as those of Jean-Philippe Rameau). Despite the intervening paradigm shift, both cases can be related to and regarded as sounding-body phenomena. The voice as a sounding body serves as another example. It is intimately connected to speech; the latter is produced in the same vocal-acoustical apparatus, a fact that alludes to a connection between rhethoric and the doctrine of musical affectations, extending from the Renaissance into the present.

In addition, the connections between music and the sciences can be mapped directly or indirectly onto the different dimenions of sounding bodies. The following examples may serve as illustrations.

1) The proportions known from the doctrine of harmonies ("Harmonielehre") have repeatedly been considered as natural, free from social conventions and individual idosyncrasies. With this in mind, a view of the doctrine of harmonies as a direct continuation of physics seems to be clear. A doctrine of harmonies, experimentally and physically enforced by sirens, glass pipes, reed pipes, tuning forks, and other sounding bodies could consequently be used as a foundation of musical aesthetics (as was the case with Helmholtz), as well as a weapon in the controversies between different schools of musical aesthetics.

2) During the 19th century, the piano became the emblem of the sounding body, which could be used both as an instrument of artistic performance and of science. The vibrating piano string not only served scientitsts with a model and metaphor for the description of how the sound-receiving parts of the nervous system worked, it also served, thanks to its apparently simple contruction, as an instrument for the exploration of the machinery of the nervous system. Helmholtz's investigations on the reception and transformation of sensory stimuli in the inner ear ("the piano in the ear") relied on his intimate experience with piano playing. On the Sensation of Tone (1863) resulting from these investigations no only became a successful scientific work, it also grounded the success of the piano builder Steinway & Sons and found its way into the works of composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Hindemith, Janacek, Bartok, and others. As this example shows, the contexts affiliated with sounding bodies are by no means fixed once and for all.

3) Music also plays within the narrow confines of the scientific laboratory. From the middle of the nineteenth century, precisely the time when the experimentalisation of the animal and human bodies starts to take shape, metronomes and tuning forks become laboratory objects, which help to decipher rhythmicitiy (e.g., in the case of the graphic-recording apparatus). With his investigations on the relation between violin sounds and blood-pressure rhythms in animals and humans during the 1880s, the physiologist Johann Dogiel created a research field that is still actively researched today. Based on modern apparatus, music physiologists search for the neuronal loci responsible for the reception and transformation of musical impressions in the brain and those which record the brain currents of musicians. Mediated by the brain as a sounding body and the apparatus connected to it, sounds produce a special kind of sign and image, which, like the sounds themselves, can be stored in computers. For musicians and physiologists alike it is critical that sounding bodies leave recordable traces.

4) It is equally true for the sciences as for music that "practice makes perfect." In the laboratory, the mechanical training and perpetual repetition of identical or similar combinations of movements form the basis of an "aesthetics of experimentation" (Emil du Bois-Reymond), or at the very least the basis of experimental replicability. In the end for the musician, however, over exerted muscles and nerves lead to anything but the harmonious co-existence between sounding-body phenomena and the technical mastery of an instrument. For the repair of the musician as far as s/he is her/himself a sounding body, there exists today a science of its own: the diagnostics and treatment of various illnesses, the partially and therefore poorly defined and unexplained phenomena of the muscular apparatus, and the "musical centers" of the nervous system.

The aim of the colloquium is to articulate via case studies the transfers in both directions between the realm of music, its theory and practice, and of the sciences. Give the multiple ways in which sounding bodies of any kind can be analyzed, and the variety of transfers between the realms of music and science calling for case studies, the number of themes seems limitless. Metaphors, apparatus, procedures of argumentation, techniques, images, and/or media can equally be regarded and described as transfer objects. The organizers merely wish to insist that sounding bodies at the interface between music and the sciences be taken into account as points of orientation.