Sounds of Science - Schall im Labor (1800-1930)

Workshop, October 5 - 7, 2006

Program (english version) - Preprint (PDF file, 14.5 mb)
Flyer: front (PDF file, 0.5 mb) - back (program: PDF file, 60kb)

The Workshop “Sounds of Science – Schall im Labor (1800-1930)” will include three parts, entitled “Materiality of Sound,” “Registration, Transmission, Transformation,” and “Experimental Aesthetics.” The first part will discuss how sound that is being heard became an object of scientific research: how did sound or sound sensation become material? The second part aims to connect this history of sound in the laboratory with the appearance of new media technologies. The third part will reconstruct the relationship between music and the laboratory.

Materiality of Sound

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, sound had been an object of observation and speculation, and at least since early modernity sound has been explored experimentally: acoustical research investigated the motions of vibrating bodies and the supporting medium of sound. But neither acoustical nor music theory prior to the nineteenth-century conceived of sound as material. Instead music was thought to consist of “tonally moving forms” (Hanslick 1854) and the field of physical acoustics sought a formal description of sound waves. The theories of sound and music did not address what the ear discriminates as a matter of course: a note of the same pitch and volume played on a flute does not sound like that of an oboe. Developments in nineteenth-century physiology contributed to an increasingly material conception of sound. With this an interdisciplinary form of research came into being that involved physics and instrument making, musicology, phonetics or ethnology. The functioning of the ear was recreated in laboratories: sounds were synthesized and new sound sources invented; music and its instruments were investigated to lay bare the implicit knowledge that was assumed to be hidden in compositions, theories of harmony or in musical instruments. This research was accompanied by a constant adjustment of a material culture of experiment to what could be heard as the materiality of sound. This includes the experiments and the standardization of instruments and measuring devices; it concerns the exchange between scientists and musicians, laboratories and workshops for musical and scientific instruments; it also comprises the invention of new sounds in music and the advent of electricity in the lab. All of this caused sound to be heard in new ways.

The first part of the workshop will discuss how sound that was heard became a new scientific object. How did sound become material? What was the role of physiological experiments in this development? How do new sound objects emerge and how do sound objects take part in the emergence of new concepts in experimental research? What paths did this materiality of sound take through the various disciplines and research domains? And what transformations occurred in the knowledge of sound? How do the histories of phonetics and musical instruments contribute to a history of sound?

Registration, Transmission, Transformation

Concepts of sound, as they were understood in older music theory of acoustics, were independent of time. Time remained in a way external: Fourier-Analysis presupposes infinite waves, and the theories of harmony erected timeless architectures of sound relationships. In the 19th century, however, physiology and psychology shifted focus to the temporal nature of sound. Hearing was resolved into a series of processes of registration, transmission and transformation, which were then emulated and reenacted experimentally. Technical devices that could perform these functions served as a model in these processes, and at the same time new technologies of recording, broadcasting and reproduction of sound found their model in the ear. In the experiments, these technical devices filled the functions of hearing, while the physiology of the senses guided the construction of speaking machines and sound recording apparatus. The ephemeral sound was molded into a scientific object by the interplay of experimental science and media technologies. The “méthode graphique” or the “phonautograph” allowed repeated access to their recordings of fleeting sound events. Ensembles of sirens, resonators, the harmonium and tuning forks enabled the arbitrary production of well-defined sound. With the use of the phonograph and gramophone, sound became independent of its original context. The media technologies of recording transmission and transformation made a new phenomenality of sound audible. In sound there were tones and clangs, signals and noise, information and distortion, and the vibration of a sounding body was only one form of energy among others.

The second part of the workshop will ask how the technologies and procedures of recording, transmission, and transformation of sound are brought into action in the laboratory. What is the role of symbolic code of music in this? And how did the new devices of sound registration and recording change the role of the symbolic code in music? To what extent did telecommunications engineering take the knowledge of hearing into account, for example, in the construction of hearing aids or loudspeakers? In what way do concepts of hearing take part in the development of new media technologies? How did laboratory experiments advance the emergence of techniques for the registration, transmission and reproduction of sound? And just how far does the mutual metaphorization of sense perception and media technology extend?

Experimental Aesthetics

Nineteenth-century physiology appropriated the history of music as a kind of prehistory of the physiological theory of hearing. Experimenters believed that the Western tonal system reflected the ear’s ability to analyze sound, that music theory and composition were both grounded in calculable processes of hearing, and that the history of music mirrored the physical laws of hearing. Some fundamental notions of musical aesthetics—consonance and dissonance, scales, triads and modes—apparently could be confirmed experimentally, and yet the postulated systematic connection between physiology and musical aesthetics did not hold. The experiments did not reveal a natural order in the system of music, but instead deciphered an arbitrary ordering in it. Nineteenth-century research on hearing could not provide a physiological foundation for musical aesthetics. Musical aesthetics did, however, heavily inform research on hearing. This can be seen in the choice of sound sources which were brought into action in the laboratory, it can be followed in the experimental set-ups that produced beats and combination tones, and finally in the wordings and choices of hypotheses that were tested experimentally.

The third part of the workshop will investigate exchanges between music and the laboratory. How did experiments on hearing affect the teaching of music? In what sense did orchestral music experiment with sounds? What is the connection between the debate on tuning systems and temperaments and the beginnings of so called “authentic” performance? In this context, the importance of 19th-century experimental culture for a modern aesthetics of music will be considered: How did a new ideal of tone emerge from the attempt to produce a sound which does not belong to any aesthetic order, out of presumably ‘pure’ sinusoidal waves? Or, how could a single instrument, the siren, whose infinitely variable tone was supposed to demonstrate the validity of the tonal system, eventually abolish this very system?

Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Julia Kursell
Boltzmannstrasse 22
D- 14195 Berlin