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Sound Authorities

Scientific and Musical Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Britain

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.

320 pages | 33 halftones, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2021

History: British and Irish History

History of Science

Music: General Music


“This book reveals the Victorians as you’ve never heard them before. Music, often associated in the nineteenth century with the emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic aspects of life, was also simultaneously the subject of science. Edward Gillin engagingly traces the traffic between concert halls, shops, laboratories, and lecture theaters that made it possible to think about sound scientifically. In doing so, he adds a new sense to our understanding of science in the making of the modern world.”

Jim Secord, author of 'Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age'

Sound Authorities identifies a blank spot on the map of sound studies. Using the key term of ‘authority,’ Gillin places Britain in the history of nineteenth-century sound and music. Sound’s ephemerality, Gillin compellingly argues, prompted people to stake their claim in the discourse on sound. The complex question of who was entitled to speak of music as vibration and of sound as elevating the soul weaves into an elegantly written narrative. A must-read for those active in the fields of nineteenth-century sound and music studies.”

Julia Kursell, University of Amsterdam

Sound Authorities is a carefully crafted, well-researched, and original work. Gillin convincingly argues that a close examination of sound as it moves through various spaces of nineteenth-century Britain offers new insight into scientific practice and scientific authority. This book is an important contribution to both sound studies and the history of science.”

Alexandra Hui, Mississippi State University

"Gillin opens his study of sound in 19th-century Britain by observing that this was a time when 'to see was not, in itself, to know' (p. 18)—natural philosophy relied on the ear as well as the eye for empirical knowledge—and that musical and religious convictions could also be important in the scientific understanding of nature. . . The epilogue offers startling insights into sound in the early modern age. Recommended."


Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables
Introduction: Sounds and Sweet Airs: Science, Sound, and Music in Britain, 1815–1914
Part I Experiments and Mathematics: The Making of Sound as a Scientific Object
Chapter 1 The Laboratory of Harmony: The Transformation of Sound within British Science, 1815–46
Chapter 2 A Harmonious Universe: Herschel, Whewell, Somerville, and the Place of Sound in British Mathematics, 1830–70
Part II Contesting Knowledge: Mathematicians, Musicians, and Sound Measurements
Chapter 3 The Problem of Pitch: Mathematical Authority and the Mid-Victorian Search for a Musical Standard
Chapter 4 Accuracy and Audibility: Mathematics, Musical Consensus, and the Unreliability of Sound, 1835–81
Part III Materialism and Morality: Religious Authority and the Science of Sound
Chapter 5 Musical Matter: Religious Authority, John Tyndall, and the Challenge of Materialism, 1859–1914
Epilogue: Musical Spiders and Sounds Scientific in the Modern Age
Select Bibliography

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