The Psychophysical Ear

From Transformations: Studies in the History of Science and Technology

The Psychophysical Ear

Musical Experiments, Experimental Sounds, 1840-1910

By Alexandra Hui

An examination of how the scientific study of sound sensation became increasingly intertwined with musical aesthetics in nineteenth-century Germany and Austria.





An examination of how the scientific study of sound sensation became increasingly intertwined with musical aesthetics in nineteenth-century Germany and Austria.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, German and Austrian concertgoers began to hear new rhythms and harmonies as non-Western musical ensembles began to make their way to European cities and classical music introduced new compositional trends. At the same time, leading physicists, physiologists, and psychologists were preoccupied with understanding the sensory perception of sound from a psychophysical perspective, seeking a direct and measurable relationship between physical stimulation and physical sensation. These scientists incorporated specific sounds into their experiments—the musical sounds listened to by upper middle class, liberal Germans and Austrians. In The Psychophysical Ear, Alexandra Hui examines this formative historical moment, when the worlds of natural science and music coalesced around the psychophysics of sound sensation, and new musical aesthetics were interwoven with new conceptions of sound and hearing.

Hui, a historian and a classically trained musician, describes the network of scientists, musicians, music critics, musicologists, and composers involved in this redefinition of listening. She identifies a source of tension for the psychophysicists: the seeming irreconcilability between the idealist, universalizing goals of their science and the increasingly undeniable historical and cultural contingency of musical aesthetics. The convergence of the respective projects of the psychophysical study of sound sensation and the aesthetics of music was, however, fleeting. By the beginning of the twentieth century, with the professionalization of such fields as experimental psychology and ethnomusicology and the proliferation of new and different kinds of music, the aesthetic dimension of psychophysics began to disappear.


$40.00 X ISBN: 9780262018388 256 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 24 figures


  • In this wonderful cultural history of physics, music, and psychophysics, Alexandra Hui skillfully traces the history of the development of nineteenth-century musical aesthetics while simultaneously elaborating upon the physical theories that shaped and bolstered them. The notable chapter on psychophysics offers a much-needed history of the topic.

    Myles W. Jackson

    New York University, author of Harmonious Triads

  • Alexandra Hui's The Psychophysical Ear reveals that modern psychophysics draws many of its most basic ideas from the musical culture of nineteenth-century Germany. Equally at ease discussing interpretations of the Fechner-Weber law and Brahms scores, Hui reconstructs the social milieus in which psychophysicists and musicians borrowed ideas from one another. This book is an outstanding history of science and will help transform how we understand psychophysics and its intellectual heirs. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the histories of sound, hearing, and Western music.

    Jonathan Sterne

    author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format and The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction

  • If you care about music and science, you must read Alexandra Hui's account of how their interactions led to the formation of psychophysics. No previous book has tried to do what she has achieved in this remarkable study of interconnections between scientists and musicians. Written with wit, verve, and impeccable scholarship, the implications of Hui's outstanding book will long reverberate.

    Peter Pesic

    Tutor and Musician-in-Residence at St. John's College, Santa Fe; author of Sky in a Bottle


  • Winner, 2014 Early Career Award given by the Society for the History of Psychology