Alexandra Hui

Apr 30, 2013

The Psychophysical Ear

Musical Experiments, Experimental Sounds, 1840-1910

MIT Press 2013

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In The Psychophysical Ear: Musical Experiments, Experimental Sounds, 1840-1910 (MIT Press, 2013), Alexandra Hui explores a fascinating chapter of that history in a period when musical aesthetics and natural science came together in the psychophysical study of sound in nineteenth century Germany. Though we tend to consider the performing arts and sciences as occupying different epistemic and disciplinary realms, Hui argues that the scientific study of sound sensation not only was framed in terms of musical aesthetics, but became increasingly so over time. The book traces a series of arguments by practitioners of the study of sound sensation as they sought to uncover universal rules for understanding the sonic world: How much epistemic weight ought to be placed on the experiences of an individual listener? What sorts of expertise were relevant or necessary for a sound scientist's experimental practice? Did musical training matter? Was there a proper way to listen to music? The Psychophysical Ear follows sound scientists as they grappled with these and other questions, struggling with the consequences of understanding the act of listening as a practice that was fundamentally grounded in particular historical contexts as phonographic technology and the increasing number of performances of non-Western music in Europe were transforming the sonic world of Europe. Hui's story often involves the reader's own sensorium in the story, urging us to imagine or play sequences of musical notes that prove crucial to some of the arguments of the actors in the story. Enjoy!

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