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This project began in September 2015 and is funded by a Starting Grant from the European Research Council.


It examines how a scientific-materialist conception of sound was formed alongside a dominant culture of romantic idealism. Placing itself at the intersection of historical musicology and the history and philosophy of science, the project will investigate the view that sound, ostensibly the property of metaphysics, was also regarded by writers, composers, scientists and engineers as tangible, material and subject to physical laws; that scientific thinking was not anathema but—at key moments—intrinsic to music aesthetics and criticism; that philosophies of mind and theories of the creative process also drew on mechanical rules of causality and associative ‘laws’; and that the technological innovations brought about by scientific research—from steam trains to stethoscopes—were accompanied by new concepts and new ways of listening that radically impacted the sound world of composers, critics and performers. It will also create 3D digital simulations of lost historical soundscapes from the 19th century.


Three postdoctoral researchers, Edward Gillin, Melle Kromhout, and Melissa Van Drie, recently joined the project. 

Sound and Materialism in the 19th Century

The project's four areas of research:

Machines and Mechanisms


The icon of the machine in early 19th-century Germany and Britain was subject to a number of social critiques. In Thomas Carlyle's Spirit of the Times (1829), he cautioned about their encroachment into one’s private, mental life: ‘not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also’ (Carlyle 2008: 137).  This kind of reactionary criticism gave rise to numerous caricatures by William Heath and Thomas McLean (et al.) about ‘the march of intellect’ that was upending society and ending what Carlyle called ‘the old natural methods.’ For music the impact of mechanisms is expressed both through sensory augmentation of the ear and through rationalization of the production of musical works (including through automata), hence the sub-areas are: hearing machines & composing machines.

Forms of Nature


Both music and natural science were anchored in shifting conceptions of ‘nature’. Figures such as Goethe viewed musical works explicitly as indirect products of nature, while the avowed purpose of the natural sciences was to study nature and thereby ‘illuminate the darkness of our present’ (Otto Ule, 1852). Arising from the romantic conception of nature (Naturphilosophie) is the concept of a single unified spectrum of light and sound. Figures such as the English polymath Thomas Young believed in a unity of natural phenomena—‘sound travels in waves; so too must light’—that underscored a body of music criticism on the perception of tone colour / Klangfarbe / timbre.





Technologies for Sound


The phenomenon of sound provided knowledge, techniques, instruments, and data necessary for research in physiology, thermodynamics, psychology, phonetics, communication technology, and many other disciplines that seem remote from music composition and aesthetics.  At the same time, laboratory noises yielded important information, such as velocity of sound in types of gas, the pitch resulting from the differing density of material when struck, and the role of sound as a contaminant in the laboratory. In other words, scientific instruments not only generated transcriptions, they created aural information as well, helping to structure the experience of experiments. Both the skill of hearing and the knowledge necessary for sound production were involved.  This reciprocity presents a rich site of investigation. Briefly expanding the intellectual purview of the project into the twenty-first century, a present-day parallel sees much the same process evident in data audialisation, i.e. the practice of taking the search and access statistical data from a website and representing it as a piece of music. On the basis of such parallels, it will be possible to trace the genealogy of such methods for the first time.

Furthermore, the noises of technologies arising from scientific research created a new urban soundscape within which composers worked. Technologies such as steam trains and cable cars brought new sounds as well as new utilities, while the noises of novel stage machinery often required compensatory musical scoring, for example the use of untuned percussion such as gongs to cover up the ‘unmusical’ sounds of the machines.  Hence, two interrelated technologies—presented here as applied science—that are interwoven with music aesthetics and composition are: modes of transport & stage technology.

The philosophical roots of this belief in a unified cosmos wherein the ‘octave’ equivalency between senses (contiguous wavelengths separating the perception of sound and light) is engineered to demonstrate a belief in natural unity, a single ‘grand scale of sensations,’ can be traced most directly to Friedrich Schelling’s Erster Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie (1799); the project’s reciprocal interchange of philosophy, sound, and empirical science seeks to uncover valuable new knowledge in this light, and particularly of the two sub-areas for this topic: waveforms & polarities of nature.


Music Medicalised


The bio-medical sciences were not directly linked to musical performance or composition, but these ostensibly separate fields became entwined when (i) music critics and social commentators viewed musical works as a measure of the health of a society; and (ii) musical talent became a means of authenticating pseudo-scientific theories of learning and genius, particularly in Great Britain and Germany. Here, the two sub-areas are: cultural degeneration & phrenology.

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