Sound Authorities Scientific and Musical Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Britain

PDF Sound Authorities Scientific and Musical Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Britain 3 April 2022

Book author
  1. Edward J. Gillin
51ZmECUw0L SX329 BO1204203200

Sound Authorities shows how experiences of music and sound played a crucial role in nineteenth-century scientific inquiry in Britain.

In Sound Authorities, Edward J. Gillin focuses on hearing and aurality in Victorian Britain, claiming that the development of the natural sciences in this era cannot be understood without attending to the study of sound and music.

During this time, scientific practitioners attempted to fashion themselves as authorities on sonorous phenomena, coming into conflict with traditional musical elites as well as religious bodies. Gillin pays attention to sound in both musical and nonmusical contexts, specifically the cacophony of British industrialization. Sound Authorities begins with the place of acoustics in early nineteenth-century London, examining scientific exhibitions, lectures, spectacles, workshops, laboratories, and showrooms. He goes on to explore how mathematicians mobilized sound in their understanding of natural laws and their vision of a harmonious ordered universe. In closing, Gillin delves into the era’s religious and metaphysical debates over the place of music (and humanity) in nature, the relationship between music and the divine, and the tensions between spiritualist understandings of sound and scientific ones.


First and foremost, I would like to thank David Trippett for making this book possible. Not only did he take the bold gamble of appointing me to his project, “Sound and Materialism in the Nineteenth Century,” but he has provided constant guidance throughout. My fellow project members Melissa Van Drie, Melle Kromhout, and Stephanie Probst have been amazing, teaching me an awful lot and offering phenomenal support. Together my colleagues have offered a great deal of friendship and fun over the past three years; without them, I simply could not have written this. I also am grateful to the European Research Council for funding our project so generously. Cambridge University’s Faculty of Music has been a lovely place to work and I have appreciated all the kind help from its academic and support staff, especially our project coordinators, Elaine Hendrie and Veronika Lorenser. I conducted a great deal of the work for this project at 32 Sherlock Close, where I was lucky enough to have the encouragement and entertainment of Amie Varney, Chlöe Gamlin, Tilda, and Bertram. I also owe a great deal to Silke Muylaert, who will always have my enduring appreciation.

As ever, I owe immense debts to Christina de Bellaigue, Philip Boobbyer, Grayson Ditchfield, Katherine Fry, Jane Garnett, Ben Griffin, Graeme Gooday, Alexandra Hui, Peter Mandler, Simon Schaffer, Jim Secord, Crosbie Smith, Geoffrey Tyack, and William Whyte, as well as Robert Hall, Ben King, Rachel North, and Keith Shepherd. This work has been considerably enhanced through conversations with Daniel Belteki, Geoffrey Cantor, Graham Dolan, Giorgio Farabegoli, Alexandra Hui, Julia Kursell, Peter McMurray, Roger Parker, and Peter Pesic. Thanks to Viktoria Tkaczyk and Birgitta Mallinckrodt at the Max Planck Institute, where I have enjoyed collaborating with the “Epistemes of Modern Acoustics” Research Group, and especially for all the immensely productive discussions with Fanny Gribenski; the time I spent in Berlin with Acknowledgments 242 Acknowledgments these scholars has had much influence on the shape of this book. I must also thank Jenny Bulstrode, Oliver Carpenter, Sheila Cavanagh, Stephen Courtney, Perry Gauci, Michael Hall, Horatio Joyce, Ayla Lepine, David Lewis, Harry Mace, Tim Marshall, Christopher McKenna, Lucy Rhymer, Peter Roberts, Otto Saumarez- Smith, and the now legendary “Little Christopher Yabsley” for their constant friendship and support. Without all the enthusiasm they provide, the process of research and writing would be highly laborious. I apologize for anyone I have accidently forgotten to mention. My work has been enriched by discussions with students at Oxford, Cambridge, and Emory, both undergraduates and postgraduates, and I thank them all.

Cambridge is a great place for conducting research and I appreciate all the help staff have provided at the University Library, especially in Rare Books and Manuscripts, as well as at the Institute of Astronomy Library, the Wren Library, the English Faculty Library, the Seeley Historical Library, Newnham College Library, Girton College Library, the Casimir Lewy Library, St. John’s College Library, the Whipple Library, and the Pendlebury Library. I have also enjoyed help from Oxford University’s Bate Collection, Claire Horscroft at Hove Public Library, the British Library, King’s College London Library, the Royal Institution, the Royal Society Library, the Royal Society of Arts Library, Edinburgh University’s Centre for Research Collections, Alison Metcalfe at the National Library of Scotland, Karen Moran at the Edinburgh Royal Observatory Library, Liverpool University’s Sydney Jones Library, the Institute of Civil Engineers Library, the Science Museum, and at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, in particular at the Weston Library. Additional thanks go to everyone at Trinity and St. Edmund’s Colleges in Cambridge, the History Faculty, and the university’s History and Philosophy of Science Department.

This book owes much to the excellent feedback at a number of conferences and seminars. In particular, thanks go to all those who provided constructive input at Cambridge’s Faculty of Music Colloquia, the History and Philosophy of Science departmental seminar in Cambridge, Cambridge Modern British History Seminar, Oxford Modern British History Seminar, the Victorian Society, the Science Museum Research Seminar, the Royal Historical Society Oxford’s Long Nineteenth Century Seminar, the IHR’s Parliaments, Politics, and People Seminar, the 2018 History of Science Society conference in Seattle, the “Life and Work of Sir George Biddell Airy” workshop at Cambridge University Library, the 2018 “Measurement at the Crossroads” conference in Paris, the “Spectres de L’Audible” and “Sensing the Sonic” conferences at Paris Acknowledgments 243 and Cambridge during 2018, the “Acoustics of Empire” conference, the 53rd Annual Meeting of the Royal Musical Association, and “After Idealism: Sound as Matter and Medium in the Nineteenth Century,” which was also held in Cambridge in 2017.

Finally, I am grateful to my family and friends in Devon for everything they have done for me and all the patience they have shown over the past few years with my work and eccentric habits. Thanks go to my parents, Steve and Louise Spencer, my brother Alexander Teague, Montgomery Spencer (“the best of all of us”), Alfred Spencer, Robert White, Laura Treloar, Peter Exell, everyone at Sharpham Vineyard, the Fagg family, especially Lizzie and Steve, Charlotte, Ellie, and Jamie, and all of the Teague family, especially Steve and Pauline. This book is dedicated to my dear old Nan, the late Estelle White, who was always terrific fun.


Why does music sound good? Or, more precisely, why is it that some sounds are pleasing and some sounds are not? For hundreds of years this question troubled natural philosophers, instrument makers, musicians, and theologians. Reconciling sound’s physical properties with musical experiences was difficult. Traditional understandings of music taught that it was metaphysical, with its almost magical ability to affect the human senses attributed to its spiritual nature. Its power was divinely ordered and its aesthetic character was evidence of a benevolent Creator. The potential of a musical performance to determine a listener’s emotional state was not so much a material process as a sacred encounter that touched the human soul. But amid the nineteenth- century expansion of industry, scientific c ulture, and imperialism, all this changed. New machines raised questions about how music was manufactured, radical accounts of nature and scientific practices revolutionized ideas about what it was, and diverse instruments and audiences problematized preconceptions about how it was heard. At stake were broader questions of music’s role in nature and the place of sound in the universe. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Britain, the first industrial nation and home to a booming scientific culture. Yet these questions were not merely philosophical but social. Attempts to define, explain, utilize, control, measure, and regulate sound, and specifically music, were, above all, about cultural author- 2 Introduction ity. They engendered tensions over the sort of knowledge that society could trust and the kind of individual who could be relied on to deliver it.

From 1815 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, sound and music took on a distinctive role in the natural sciences. Sound Authorities examines this relationship and argues that the connections between the scientific and the sonorous are crucial to our understanding of the place of science within nineteenth- century British society. Arguably, no other question in natural philosophy implicated such a diverse range of social audiences. As a science, acoustics was subject to experimental and mathematical investigation, but sound was never an exclusively scientific concern. Music was so central to human existence and culture that any scientific observation made on sonorous phenomena raised questions over who was an authority to instruct society in matters of nature. Musicians, composers, and instrument makers all offered rival sources of sonorous knowledge to those scientific, while theological commentators provided philosophical instruction through sermons that reached beyond the relatively elite audiences to which leading scientific practitioners lectured. Clergymen were eager to inform listeners on nature, including the sonorous, and they frequently drew on scientific publications in sermons. Never theless, music and sound generally remained beyond material explanation, instead appearing as divinely ordered phenomena. Throughout this book, it becomes clear that debates over the materiality of music and its medium, sound, engendered crucial concerns over man’s place in the universe and the divine origins of all nature.

Above all, it was sound’s transcendental character that makes it such a rich subject for historical investigation. Sound, and specifically music, had an unrivaled capability to permeate social orders, class boundaries, and hierarchies of knowledge.1 As anyone with a functioning ear could appreciate music’s beauty, recognize harmonic principles, and experience sonorous phenomena, sound provided ways of engaging with natural philosophy that did not demand higher education or even basic literacy. Similarly, by witnessing sound waves moving through water or vibrating sand, audiences could comprehend how natural forces like light and heat operated, without specialist expertise. Across the British Isles, scientific popularizers mobilized musical resources to attract diverse new audiences to lectures, mathematicians invoked harmonious analogies in their portrayals of an ordered universe, natural philosophers employed the ear to scrutinize nature, and musical instruments provided valuable apparatus for experimentalists. This was an exciting time for the natural sciences in Britain, and sound was a central part of this.
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