H L F Helmholtz: Theory of Music Introduction

In 1863 Helmholtz completed the first edition of his famous book On the sensations of tone as a physiological basis for the theory of music written in German. By 1870 a third edition had been published and Alexander J Ellis began a translation of the edition into English. Ellis was twice president of the Philological Society and was a member of the Cambridge Mathematical Society. He wrote Early English Pronunciation, and Algebra identified with geometry. Before the translation was complete, Helmholtz published the fourth and final German edition of the text in 1877. Ellis incorporated the changes made by Helmholtz in his fourth edition into the English translation. In 1895 a second English edition of the translation was published. Below we give the translation by Ellis of Helmholtz's Introduction to the book where he sets out his plans for presenting his material.

For the English translation of Helmholtz's Prefaces to the First German Edition and the Third German Ediction see: H L F Helmholtz Theory of Music Preface

INTRODUCTION

In the present work all attempt will be made to connect the boundaries of two sciences, which, although drawn towards each other by many natural affinities, have hitherto remained practically distinct - I mean the boundaries of physical and physiological acoustics on the one side, and of musical science and aesthetics on the other. The class of readers addressed will, consequently, have had very different cultivation, and will be affected by very different interests. It will therefore not be superfluous for the author at the outset distinctly to state his intention in undertaking the work, and the aim he has sought to attain. The horizons of physics, philosophy, and art have of late been too widely separated, and, as a consequence, the language, the methods, and the aims of any one of these studies present a certain amount of difficulty for the student of any other of them; and possibly this is the principal cause why the problem here undertaken has not been long ago more thoroughly considered and advanced towards its solution.

It is true that acoustics constantly employs conceptions and names borrowed from the theory of harmony, and speaks of the 'scale,' intervals,' -consonances,' and so forth; and similarly, manuals of Thorough Bass generally begin with a physical chapter which speaks of 'the numbers of vibrations,' and fixes their 'ratios' for the different intervals; but, up to the present time, this apparent connection of acoustics and music has been wholly external, and may be regarded rather as an expression given to the feeling that such a connection must exist, than as its actual formulation. Physical knowledge may indeed have been useful for musical instrument makers, but for the development and foundation of the theory of harmony it has hitherto been totally barren. And yet the essential facts within the field here to be explained and turned to account, have been known from the earliest times. Even Pythagoras (fl. circa B.C. 540-510) knew that when strings of different lengths but of the same make, and subjected to the same tension, were used to give the perfect consonances of the Octave, Fifth, or Fourth, their lengths must be in the ratios of 1 to 2, 2 to 3, or 3 to 4 respectively, and if, as is probable, his knowledge was partly derived from the Egyptian priests, it is impossible to conjecture in what remote antiquity this law was first known. Later physics has extended the law of Pythagoras by passing from the lengths of strings to the number of vibrations, and thus making it applicable to the tones of all musical instruments, and the numerical relations 4 to 5 and 5 to 6 have been added to the above for the less perfect consonances of the major and minor Thirds, but I am not aware that any real step was ever made towards answering the question: What have musical consonances to do with the ratios of the first six numbers? Musicians, as well as philosophers and physicists, have generally contented themselves with saying in effect that human minds were in some unknown manner so constituted as to discover the numerical relations of musical vibrations, and to have a peculiar pleasure in contemplating, simple ratios which are readily comprehensible.

Meanwhile musical aesthetics has made unmistakable advances in those points which depend for their solution rather on psychological feeling than on the action of the senses, by introducing the conception of movement in the examination of musical works of art. E Hanslick, in his book On the Beautiful in Music (Ueber das musikalisch Schöne), triumphantly attacked the false standpoint of exaggerated sentimentality, from which it was fashionable to theorise on music, and referred the critic to the simple elements of melodic movement. The aesthetic relations for the structure of musical compositions, and the characteristic differences of individual forms of composition are explained more fully in Vischer's Esthetics (Aesthetik). In the inorganic world the kind of motion we see, reveals the kind of moving force in action, and in the last resort the only method of recognising and measuring the elementary powers of nature consists in determining the motions they generate, and this is also the case for the motions of bodies or of voices which take place under the influence of human feelings. Hence the properties of musical movements which possess a graceful, dallying, or a heavy, forced, a dull, or a powerful, a quiet, or excited character, and so on, evidently chiefly depend on psychological action. In the same way questions relating to the equilibrium of the separate parts of a musical composition, to their development from one another and their connection as one clearly intelligible whole, bear a close analogy to similar questions in architecture. But all such investigations, however fertile they may have been, cannot have been otherwise than imperfect and uncertain, so long as they were without their proper origin and foundation, that is, so long as there was no scientific foundation for their elementary rules relating to the construction of scales, chords, keys and modes, in short, to all that is usually contained in works on 'Thorough Bass'. In this elementary region we have to deal not merely with unfettered artistic inventions, but with the natural power of immediate sensation. Music stands in a much closer connection with pure sensation than any of the other arts. The latter rather deal with what the senses apprehend, that is with the images of outward objects, collected by psychical processes from immediate sensation. Poetry aims most distinctly of all at merely exciting the formation of images, by addressing itself especially to imagination and memory, and it is only by subordinate auxiliaries of a more musical kind, such as rhythm, and imitations of sounds, that it appeals to the immediate sensation of hearing. Hence its effects depend mainly on psychical action. The plastic arts, although they make use of the sensation of sight, address the eye almost in the same way as poetry addresses the ear. Their main purpose is to excite in us the image of an external object of determinate form and colour. The spectator is essentially intended to interest himself in this image, and enjoy its beauty; not to dwell upon the means by which it was created. It must at least be allowed that the pleasure of a connoisseur or virtuoso in the constructive art shown in a statue or a picture, is not an essential element of artistic enjoyment.

It is only in painting that we find colour as an element which is directly appreciated by sensation, without any intervening act of the intellect. On the contrary, in music, the sensations of tone are the material of the art. So far as these. sensations are excited in music, we do not create out of them any images of external objects or actions. Again, when in hearing a concert we recognise one tone as due to a violin and another to a clarinet, our artistic enjoyment does not depend upon our conception of a violin or clarinet, but solely on our hearing of the tones they produce, whereas the artistic enjoyment resulting from viewing a marble statue does not depend on the white light which it reflects into the eye, but upon the mental image of the beautiful human form which it calls up. In this sense it is clear that music has a more immediate connection with pure sensation than any other of the fine arts, and, consequently, that the theory of the sensations of hearing is destined to play a much more important part in musical aesthetics, than, for example, the theory of chiaroscuro or of perspective in painting. Those theories are certainly useful to the artist, as means for attaining the most perfect representation of nature, but they have no part in the artistic effect of his work. In music, on the other hand, no such perfect representation of nature is aimed at; tones and the sensations of tone exist for themselves alone, and produce their effects independently of anything behind them.

This theory of the sensations of hearing belongs to natural science, and comes in the first place under physiological acoustics. Hitherto it is the physical part of the theory of sound that has been almost exclusively treated at length, that is, the investigations refer exclusively to the motions produced by solid, liquid, or gaseous bodies when they occasion the sounds which the ear appreciates. This physical acoustics is essentially nothing but a section of the theory of the motions of elastic bodies. It is physically indifferent whether observations are made on stretched strings, by means of spirals of brass wire (which vibrate so slowly that the eye can easily follow their motions, and, consequently, do not excite any sensation of sound), or by means of a violin string (where the eye can scarcely perceive the vibrations which the ear readily appreciates). The laws of vibratory motion are precisely the same in both cases; its rapidity or slowness does not affect the laws themselves in the slightest degree, although it compels the observer to apply different methods of observation, the eye for one and the ear for the other. In physical acoustics, therefore, the phenomena of hearing are taken into consideration solely because the ear is the most convenient and handy means of observing the more rapid elastic vibrations, and the physicist is compelled to study the peculiarities of the natural instrument which he is employing, in order to control the correctness of its indications. In this way, although physical acoustics as hitherto pursued, has, undoubtedly, collected many observations and much knowledge concerning the action of the ear, which, therefore, belong to physiological acoustics, these results were not the principal object of its investigations; they were merely secondary and isolated facts. The only justification for devoting a separate chapter to acoustics in the theory of the motions of elastic bodies, to which it essentially belongs, is, that the application of the ear as an instrument of research influenced the nature of the experiments and the methods of observation.

But in addition to a physical there is a physiological theory of acoustics, the aim of which is to investigate the processes that take place within the ear itself. The section of this science which treats of the conduction of the motions to which sound is due, from the entrance of the external ear to the expansions of the nerves in the labyrinth of the inner ear, has received much attention, especially in Germany, since ground was broken by Johannes Mueller. At the same time it must be confessed that not many results have as yet been established with certainty. But these attempts attacked only a portion of the problem, and left the rest untouched. Investigations into the processes of each of our organs of sense, have in general three different parts. First we have to discover how the agent reaches the nerves to be excited, as light for the eye and sound for the ear. This may be called the physical part of the corresponding physiological investigation. Secondly we have to investigate the various modes in which the nerves themselves are excited, giving rise to their various sensations, and finally the laws according to which these sensations result in mental images of determinate external objects, that is, in perceptions. Hence we have secondly a specially physiological investigation for sensations, and thirdly, a specially psychological investigation for perceptions. Now whilst the physical side of the theory of hearing has been already frequently attacked, the results obtained for its physiological and psychological sections are few, imperfect, and accidental. Yet it is precisely the physiological part in especial - the theory of the sensations of hearing - to which the theory of music has to look for the foundation of its structure.

In the present work, then, I have endeavoured in the first place to collect and arrange such materials for the theory of the sensations of hearing as already existed, or as I was able to add from my own personal investigations. Of course such a first attempt must necessarily be somewhat imperfect, and be limited to the elements and the most interesting divisions of the subject discussed. It is in this light that I wish these studies to be regarded. Although in the propositions thus collected there is little of entirely new discoveries, and although even such apparently new facts and observations as they contain are, for the most part, more properly speaking the immediate consequences of my having more completely carried out known theories and methods of investigation to their legitimate consequences, and of my having more thoroughly exhausted their results than had heretofore been attempted, yet I cannot but think that the facts frequently receive new importance and new illumination, by being regarded from a fresh point of view and in a fresh connection.

The First Part of the following investigation is essentially physical and physiological. It contains a general investigation of the phenomenon of harmonic upper partial tones. The nature of this phenomenon is established, and its relation to quality of tone is proved. A series of qualities of tone are analysed in respect to their harmonic upper partial tones, and it results that these upper partial tones are not, as was hitherto thought, isolated phenomena of small importance, but that, with very few exceptions, they determine the qualities of tone of almost all instruments, and are of the greatest importance for those qualities of tone which are best adapted for musical purposes. The question of how the ear is able to perceive these harmonic upper partial tones then leads to an hypothesis respecting the mode in which the auditory nerves are excited, which is well fitted to reduce all the facts and laws in this department to a relatively simple mechanical conception.

The Second Part treats of the disturbances produced by the simultaneous production of two tones, namely the combinational tones and beats. The physiologico-physical investigation shows that two tones can be simultaneously heard by the ear without mutual disturbance, when and only when they stand to each other in the perfectly determinate and well-known relations of intervals which form musical consonance. We are thus immediately introduced into the field of music proper, and are led to discover the physiological reason for that enigmatical numerical relation announced by Pythagoras. The magnitude of the consonant intervals is independent of the quality of tone, but the harmoniousness of the consonances, and the distinctness of their separation from dissonances, depend on the quality of tone. The conclusions of physiological theory here agree precisely with the musical rules for the formation of chords; they even go more into particulars than it was possible for the latter to do, and have, as I believe, the authority of the best composers in their favour.

In these first two Parts of the book, no attention is paid to aesthetic considerations. Natural phenomena obeying a blind necessity, are alone treated. The Third Part treats of the construction of musical scales and notes. Here we come at once upon aesthetic ground, and the differences of national and individual tastes begin to appear. Modern music has especially developed the principle of tonality, which connects all the tones in a piece of music by their relationship to one chief tone, called the tonic. On admitting this principle, the results of the preceding investigations furnish a method of constructing our modern musical scales and modes, from which all arbitrary assumption is excluded.

I was unwilling to separate the physiological investigation from its musical consequences, because the correctness of these consequences must be to the physiologist a verification of the correctness of the physical and physiological views advanced, and the reader, who takes up my book for its musical conclusions alone, cannot form a perfectly clear view of the meaning and bearing of these consequences, unless he has endeavoured to get at least some conception of their foundations in natural science. But in order to facilitate the use of the book by readers who have no special knowledge of physics and mathematics, I have transferred to appendices, at the end of the book, all special instructions for performing the more complicated experiments, and also all mathematical investigations. These appendices are therefore especially intended for the physicist, and contain the proofs of my assertions. In this way I hope to have consulted the interests of both classes of readers.

It is of course impossible for any one to understand the investigations thoroughly, who does not take the trouble of becoming acquainted by personal observation with at least the fundamental phenomena mentioned. Fortunately with the assistance of common musical instruments it is easy for any one to become acquainted with harmonic upper partial tones, combinational tones, beats, and the like. Personal observation is better than the exactest description, especially when, as here, the subject of investigation is an analysis of sensations themselves, which are always extremely difficult to describe to those who have not experienced them.

In my somewhat unusual attempt to pass from natural philosophy into the theory of the arts, I hope that I have kept the regions of physiology and aesthetics sufficiently distinct. But I can scarcely disguise from myself, that although my researches are confined to the lowest grade of musical grammar, they may probably appear too mechanical and unworthy of the dignity of art, to those theoreticians who are accustomed to summon the enthusiastic feelings called forth by the highest works of art to the scientific investigation of its basis. To these I would simply remark in conclusion, that the following investigation really deals only with the analysis of actually existing sensations - that the physical methods of observation employed are almost solely meant to facilitate and assure the work of this analysis and check its completeness - and that this analysis of the sensations would suffice to furnish all the results required for musical theory, even independently of my physiological hypothesis concerning the mechanism of hearing, already mentioned (p. 5a), but that I was unwilling to omit that hypothesis because it is so well suited to furnish an extremely simple connection between all the very various and very complicated phenomena which present themselves in the course of this investigation.


JOC/EFR April 2007

The URL of this page is:
http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Extras/Helmholtz_music_intro.html