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Music and the Making of Modern Science$
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Peter Pesic

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780262027274

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262027274.001.0001

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Helmholtz and the Sirens

Helmholtz and the Sirens

(p.217) 14 Helmholtz and the Sirens
Music and the Making of Modern Science

Peter Pesic

The MIT Press

Hermann von Helmholtz’s investigations of physiological optics and acoustics reflected his profound interest in music. After devising instruments to measure the space and time parameters of visual and auditory response, Helmholtz produced “color curves” characterizing the complex response of the eye to the appropriate “dimensions” of hue, saturation, intensity. In so doing, he critiqued Newton’s attempt to impose the musical scale on vision. Through experiments on sirens, Helmholtz generalized auditory perception from vibrating bodies to air puffs. He gradually formed the view that recognition of musical intervals was closely analogous to spatial resemblance or recurrence. His unfolding conception of the “manifolds” or “spaces” of sensory experience radically reconfigured and extended Newton’s connection between the musical scale and visual perception via Thomas Young’s theory of color vision. In the process, Helmholtz’s studies of hearing and seeing led him to compare them as differently structured geometric manifolds. Throughout the book where various sound examples are referenced, please see http://mitpress.mit.edu/musicandmodernscience (please note that the sound examples should be viewed in Chrome or Safari Web browsers).

Keywords:   Hermann von Helmholtz, Physiological optics, Physiology of hearing, Color vision, Vibrating bodies, Sirens, Geometry, Manifolds

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