Sympathetic vibration, Helmholtz, and normative listening

This was originally published on June 6, 2022 on my Substack newsletter. I’m republishing it here to get this post on my platform(Never trust platforms you don’t own.) If you would like to support the work I do (I don’t get research funds now that I’m not faculty), I’m running a sale on newsletter subscriptions: a year for $24. Offer is good until 23 February 2024.

In her analysis of Helmholtz’s research on hearing, Erica Fretwell argues that in the late 19th century, “differentiated musical sounds have replaced racial and sexual difference as an idex of civilization” (88). Here is a case where listening—framed as the ability to detect small sonic differences—explicitly takes on the racializing work gender traditionally performs in normalizing patriarchal racial capitalist regimes. Here, what is purported to be the racialized, gendered capacity to detect fine sonic differences functions as a proxyy for dimorphic sexual differentiation, which 19th century evolutionary theory held to be a sign of evolutionary advancement. In other words, in Fretwell’s reading of Helmholtz, listening ability functioned in place of visible racial or gender identity to mark individuals’ and populations’ relative degrees of evolutionary refinement. 

According to Fretwell, though Helmholtz thought listening involved both empirical physical sensation and aesthetic discernment, it was the capacity for discernment that was subject to norms about its degree of refinement. As Fretwell explains it, Helmholtz’s theory of hearing has three elements: the “material ear” which basically compresses audio signal to highlight the most important tones, the “mental ear” which composes those tones into a representation or sign, and the “sensitive ear” that, as Fretwell puts it, “affectively responds to the different tones within that ‘sign’” (92). It’s the sensitive ear that can be cultivated through iterative practice: “repeated exposure–what we call experience–aggregates sonic data (the partial tones) into complexes (the compound sign), then assigns symbols to them (violin)” (94). According to this theory of listening, the physiology of the ear identifies individual vibrations (frequencies and harmonics), the brain synthesizes these vibrations into a single sound, and the soul interprets that sound and puts it in its appropriate box (e.g., an oboe, a Yamaha DX7, Janet Jackson’s voice, a sample from Cybotron’s “Clear,” etc.). Once boxed, the soul can then respond affectively to that sound, e.g., by noting that the DX7 “sounds 80s” or respecting a producer’s knowledge of early techno. The point of perceiving fine-grained details in pitch and timbre was to be able to produce the most complete and appropriate interpretation of or affective response to musical sounds.

This interpretation and affective response (something like what philosophers might call “receptivity”) was thought to be the work of the properly civilized and cultivated soul, a capacity that marked indelible and evolutionary racial difference. As Fretwell reads him, Helmholtz thought that the appropriately cultivated ear ought to be able to discern not just the fundamental pitch of a frequency, but also some of the partials above it, compose those tones (fundamental and partials) together into a coherent sign, and then affectively respond in an appropriate fashion to that sign. In a sense, the sensitive ear hears the auditory profile vibrations that the material ear registers and the mental ear perceives. (And again it’s important to note here that the sensitive ear is not picking up on sound waves or vibrations, it’s interpreting the tone profile built by the mental ear.) This ability to profile was the thing that could be cultivated (in some groups of people). The sensitive ear, in other words, is what is subject to qualitative auditory norms about what a person (of a particular race) ought to be able to hear.

The idea was that more evolved (and thus more sexually dimorphic) individuals and populations will be able to perceive ever-smaller gradational differences in pitch and timbre: populations with greater average rates of sexual differentiation are capable of registering and interpreting greater average degrees of sonic differentiation. (It’s interesting that the focus here is on musical elements tied to the shape and frequency of sound waves, not musical elements like rhythm or volume.) Less evolved individuals and populations, from this perspective, exhibited coarser, less cultivated perceptual capacities. As Fretwell explains, in Helmholtz’s system

Complex musical structures, predicated on the layered arrangements of tonal elements, require a sensitive ear that can discern and separate out these elements. Hence, creating music built on small differences of pitch requires a sensitivity that ‘uncivilized people’ lack. Conjoined in this way to discourses of human progress, auditory sensitivity not only reestablished the tonal differences of a given sound but also inserted human difference into the aesthetics thereof (97).*

Helmholtz’s concept of the sensitive ear brought a biopolitical concept of racialized sexual difference–i.e., one that cut the line between living and dead with norms–to bear on an acoustical theory about the relationship among a fundamental and its partials that originated in concert with a form of liberal patriarchal racial capitalism rooted in universals. In the 18th century, the theory behind tonality was developed in an attempt to establish its universality: tonality was THE way to organize music because it was supposedly rooted in the “objective” order of overtones/partials in the overtone series. Helmholtz’s psychophysical theory of listening is important because his psychophysical concept of human “embodiment” as both physical and metaphysical allows Helmholtz to update modern (e.g., Kantian) ideas of subjective universality (e.g., first formulation of the categorical imperative—act as though your action was a universal maxim—and his idea of beauty—when I judge something to be beautiful I assert everyone else would also make this same judgment) into an idea of subjective normalization. As Fretwell puts it, “blending physics and physiology with aesthetics, psychophysical acoustics offered a model of universality that admits of subjective particularity” (89). The whole point of modeling a population on a normal curve is that every individual is different; individuals don’t need to all adopt the same perspective or standard, they just have to fall somewhere in the normal range. Helmholtz’s theory of the sensitive ear upgraded the acoustics behind tonal harmony from an enlightenment regime of universals to a biopolitical regime of norms.

Individual listeners who were in the “normal” range of audio sensitivity were thought to be capable of vibrating sympathetically with the whole. As Fretwell explains, for Helmholtz “The sensitive ear initiated a newly ‘resonant’ relationship to musical sound. No longer a passive body, the listener was now an active resonator shaping sound itself” (96). As a resonator, the embodied sensitive ear didn’t just interpret sounds, it adopted their vibratory structure, their frequency, periodicity, and timbre. This is not unlike noted eugenicist Plato’s idea that virtuous and rational individuals exhibited in themselves the analogous logos that structured the True, or that their phusis (physical body) was ordered analogously to the community nomos (law). Through sympathetic resonance, “civilized” (i.e., tonal) music could parce the population into those who had sufficient auditory sensitivity to discern and resonate with the sonic norm and those who were not sufficiently advanced. Normal curves model the frequency of frequencies in a population, so norms are frequencies just like pitches; to be within the normal range is quite literally to be consonant and in-phase with the rest of society. Falling within the statistical norm is quite literally a form of resonance (this is actually the point of The Sonic Episteme). In this respect, Helmholtz’s “sensitive ear” was a way of modeling population normalization in qualitative terms.

Fretwell argues that sympathetic resonance was a way people imagined multicultural belonging in the 19th century. As she explains, “music culture is a way to cultivate sympathy in a diverse population, a means to promote national unity, because in harmonic music the ‘divine idea of unity’ manifests as a ‘humanizing culture’ that ‘subdues’ individualism and racial conflict” (103). “Normal” audio sensitivity was the index of a soul sufficiently docile (i.e., disciplined or ‘civilized’) enough to live in accord with others in a pluralistic democratic society—i.e., to blend into the homophonic whole, e pluribus unum style. (For more on ideas of social harmony or resonance as melting-pot-style homophony, see my article here.) 

Individuals and groups who didn’t conform to the curve of the normalized distribution of audio sensitivity were considered noisy abnormals who were excluded from full personhood. Within this framework, noise comes from “irregular waveforms” (Fretwell 105), sonic analogs to the phenomenon of statistical noise, or variability that falls outside the normal distribution. Noise is both a sonic and a statistical phenomenon, and this political ontology of sympathetic resonance translates the specific form of white supremacist capitalist patriarchal personhood that normalized statistical distributions creates and polices into qualitative terms (i.e., qualitative norms about hearing). Framing exclusion from full personhood in terms of auditory capacity rather than social identity, this political ontology of sympathetic resonance opens full personhood to anyone in theory while excluding racial/gender/sexual deviants in practice. 

Though Fretwell doesn’t explain it in quite these terms, one of the ways Black people demonstrated accord with “normal” society was by practicing a particular form of respectability politics focused on heritability and descent. In this framework, auditory vibrations replace blood as the privileged medium for transmitting good or bad, legitimate or illegitimate relations. For example, in her reading of late 19th century literary representations of Black women’s musicking, Fretwell argues that “sympathetic vibration…reconfigures kinship, typically organized around blood, as a ‘mysterious mesmeric affinity’…in short: sympathetic vibration turns Black kinship into a transpersonal mode of consciousness” (116). Here, auditory vibrations are both material and metaphysical substrates for the normalizing work traditionally performed by notions of physiological reproduction and heritability: the separate out normal from abnormal, hygienic from dysgenic. In this way, “psychophysical acoustics to imagine how subjects might open up to each other without negating the hereditary principles that order them” (121). For example, Fretwell hones in on how one novel uses music and sympathetic vibration to trace a family genealogy back in time: “Sympathetic vibrations connect generations of generators and resonators, of daughters and (fore)mothers’ (116). Re-establishing lines of descent that had been erased through white supremacist patriarchal oppression, this novel resonates with the tactic Patricia Stuekely identifies in late 20th century Black feminist literature’s co-optation of neoliberal logics of legitimacy: appealing for respectability and institutional inclusion by establishing a canon or tradition of Great Black Women Artistic Foremothers. Just as the sonic Episteme leverages acrostic resonance to translate Gaussian normal curves into qualitiative terms, psychophysical aesthesis uses sympathetic vibration to translate more or less the same thing into similar terms.

So what does this have to do with vibes? As have been saying, vibes are orientations or profiles, not vibrations. Psychophysical concepts of listening as a “sensitive ear” profiling sounds in order to sympathetically vibrate with them further clarify the connection between normal curves and vibrations (for more on that see The Sonic Episteme). Though the sensitive ear certainly profiles sounds, it understands this profile as a frequency; vibes are profiles or orientations, but they are modeled not as frequencies but as vectors (lines—which can have multiple joints where they shift direction—that point in a particular direction). Vibes model algorithmic legitimation in qualitative terms—not as norms but as orientations/vectors. And just as sympathetic vibration re-made patriarchal racial capitalist personhood in terms that were not explicitly about social identity or eugenics, vibes also do this same work. — And there will be more from me soon on exactly how that all happens.