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Helmholtz and the Modern Listener


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  • Date Published: March 2015
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781107504332

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About the Authors
  • The musical writings of scientist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–94) have long been considered epoch-making in the histories of both science and aesthetics. Widely regarded as having promised an authoritative scientific foundation for harmonic practice, Helmholtz can also be read as posing a series of persistent challenges to our understanding of the musical listener. Helmholtz was at the forefront of sweeping changes in discourse about human perception. His interrogation of the physiology of hearing threw notions of the self-possessed listener into doubt and conjured a sense of vulnerability to mechanistic forces and fragmentary experience. Yet this new image of the listener was simultaneously caught up in wider projects of discipline, education and liberal reform. Reading Helmholtz in conjunction with a range of his intellectual sources and heirs, from Goethe to Max Weber to George Bernard Shaw, Steege explores the significance of Helmholtz's listener as an emblem of a broader cultural modernity.

    • Contributes to histories of both science and music, engaging an increasing mutual interest between these fields
    • Bridges gaps between music theory and newer fields, including sound studies and the history of listening, bringing new perspectives to the history of music theory
    • Analyses scientific and aesthetic arguments while placing them in cultural-historical context
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    • Winner of the 2014 Emerging Scholar Award, Society for Music Theory

    Reviews & endorsements

    '… this is a richly textured, impressively detailed and well-chiseled study that will deepen our engagement with Helmholtz's complex acoustic cosmology.' David Trippett, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science

    '[Steege's] text moves … with an interpretive delight and a virtuosity, drawing in a wide range of subjects and interlocutors.' Leslie David Blasius, Journal of the American Musicological Society

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    Product details

    • Date Published: March 2015
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781107504332
    • length: 296 pages
    • dimensions: 244 x 170 x 16 mm
    • weight: 0.48kg
    • contains: 16 b/w illus. 4 music examples
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. Popular sensations
    2. Refunctioning the ear
    3. The problem of attention
    4. Tonal theory as liberal progressive history
    5. Voices of reform
    Epilogue: Helmholtz and modernism

  • Author

    Benjamin Steege, Columbia University, New York
    Benjamin Steege is Assistant Professor of Music at Columbia University. He specializes in the history of music theory in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with particular emphasis on musical and scientific modernisms, the history of psychology and the history of listening. His work has appeared in publications including Current Musicology, the Journal of the American Musicological Society and the Journal of Music Theory.


    • Winner of the 2014 Emerging Scholar Award, Society for Music Theory

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