A Listening Paradigm

A Practical Discussion of Steege’s Helmholtz and the Modern Listener

Steege, Benjamin. Helmholtz and the Modern Listener. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Intro: what is going on?

As the subtitle suggests, this post is based on Steege’s Helmholtz and the Modern Listener, which is in turn based on Hermann von Helmholtz’s treatise, Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen (On the Sensations of Tone). The purpose of this ternary source is to repackage Helmholtz’s model of listening for modern audiences in a way that advances his agenda of practicality and accessibility. This is accomplished with a blog format that condenses the information and focuses on its application to music performers and listeners. In other words, good times ahead!

Summarizing 295 pages into a few paragraphs results in unavoidable loss of detail from the original text. Nevertheless, it is my hope that those who do not plan on reading this book will have greater interaction with these concepts through this post than if this summarizing attempt was abandoned altogether. The widespread adoption of Helmholtz’s theories and their influence on our modern interaction with music make this content worth sharing. If nothing else, hopefully this post will inspire some respect for the work that your ears do every day and encourage closer attention to the information that they provide.

Steege, Benjamin. Helmholtz and the Modern Listener. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Context: marketing in 19th-century Europe

Like any good book, Helmholtz and the Modern Listener begins by introducing the setting in which the story takes place. For the work of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), this happens to be 19th-century Europe. Scientific empiricism and public scholarship were gaining popularity, which encouraged Helmholtz to perform physical experiments to study the behavior and perception of sound. His job title necessitates many descriptors, including the following: scientist, acoustician, mathematician, psychologist, physiologist, and music theorist.

His marketing strategy was to make his work as publicly accessible as possible. The differential equations and other complicated details used to describe the behavior of sound were packaged in a way that was accessible to performers, instrument makers, scientists, and everyone in between. In other words, Helmholtz is a 19th-century example of today’s trend towards “public music theory,” where current theoretical work is intentionally presented in a familiar way that does not require multiple specialized degrees to understand or find!

It is within this context of history and purpose that Helmholtz presents Tonempfindungen in 1863, discussing the physics of sound, our perception of it, and how this informs music theory. Steege’s 2012 publication of Helmholtz and the Modern Listener then uses this information to characterize a Helmholtzian approach to listening and its place in music theory’s history. This post condenses Steege’s characterization of Helmholtz-based listening and presents a practical discussion for listeners and performers.

The Ear: an objective machine or subjective filter?

Always the pragmatist, Helmholtz expanded upon his investigation of the physical behavior of sound waves to include the perception of these sounds. It may be unsurprising that a discussion of listening requires a significant focus on the ear. These familiar objects found on either side of our head are extraordinarily complicated mechanisms that transform input pressure information into an interpreted neurological response. A simple pattern of increases and decreases in pressure on the ear drum can be identified as a car door slamming or the opening bassoon solo to Rite of Spring! But how is this accomplished and why does it matter?

Steege goes into further detail about the ear’s anatomy. For the sake of time and my squeamishness, we will avoid an in-depth discussion of the cochlea. If you want to know why our ears are more sensitive to certain frequencies, why higher sounds can be masked by lower ones, and how this muscle resembles a little piano inside our head, then I encourage you to read more about this amazing snail-like part of our ears.

Cochlea in inner ear
Image: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

To jump to the point, the squishy stuff is able to isolate the individual frequencies that comprise each and every sound! The ear effectively performs a Fourier Transform by deconstructing a tone into its component sine waves. This was not able to be accomplished mathematically until Jean-Baptiste Fourier (1768–1830), but the ear was naturally doing this long before then. I don’t know about you, but this decomposition of sound into sine waves is not how I regularly think about my hearing.

Why don’t we perceive these individual components of sound? It is not entirely helpful to leave the information deconstructed in this form. Helmholtz says that there is then an interpretation of this information that transforms sensation into cognition.

“Whether the voice of a dog contains the higher octave or the twelfth of the fundamental tone is without practical interest…”

Hermann von Helmholtz in
Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen

Helmholtz uses the phrase “the double ear” to describe this duality between the physical reaction to all external input and a psychological consolidation of this information into one perceived tone. Our perception of sound depends on this mechanical ability to react to all overtones and harmonics, but also the brain’s ability to use this information to prioritize and categorize sound. Branded as his “sign theory” (Zeichenlehre), the sound acts as a symbol to our brain. You may not be able to list your ringtone’s overtones and their relative intensities, but your ear can certainly assume the source when it receives this familiar collection of input frequencies.

Not only does our brain perform this psychological association, but it is unavoidable. Helmholtz says in his Tonempfindungen that “our representation of things cannot be anything other than symbols.” Steege emphasizes that it is currently impossible for us to experience sound without this subjective and interpretive step. This was a frustrating reality for the trending quest for objective empiricism in 19th-century Europe. To answer the original question of this subsection, the ear is therefore both an objective machine capable of deconstructing input information and a subjective filter through which we experience all sound.

With this now established, we can focus on the real centerpiece of Steege’s writing: what happens between these roles of the Helmholtzian “double ear?”

Attention: exercise for your ears

This next bit is why Steege believes Helmholtz’s work was popularized for generations to follow. If interpretations of Helmholtz’s concept of listening went no further than characterizing the duality of the ear, then it would be limited to stating observations about the natural world. Steege instead introduces the concept of “attention” into this listening paradigm. This will address the elusive moments between perception of sound and our interpretation of it.

Through experimentation, Helmholtz found that it takes about 1/10 of a second for the brain to react to information that it receives from nerves. Helmholtz named this the “critical interval.” This measurement varied greatly with the subject’s level of attentiveness, but could never be faster than 1/10 of a second, due to the physical limitation of the time needed for the message to travel through the body. Other than sparking further studies into attentiveness in the 1850s, this time separates external stimulation from internal cognition. Applied to our perception of sound, this proves an inevitable delay between physical reception of pressure waves and our interpretation of this information. Perception or listening is therefore a slightly retroactive experience that Helmholtz maintains is a brain-centered activity. Our ears do the receiving, but not the interpreting.

Steege’s characterization of attention is therefore the internal focus that the brain can give to different parts of the nervous system. Increased attentiveness to the information received by our ears can alter our perception of that information. Picture a concert hall with an orchestra performing. If two people could sit in the exact same spot and receive the exact same input, they could still interpret the sound differently. For example, how would the perception differ between a professional musician and first-time concert attender? While this idealized example is oversimplified, Helmholtz would say that the primary distinction between what they perceive is likely a matter of training and experience that is recalled in that 1/10 of a second.

By practicing attentiveness to the detail of the information received by our ears, we can strengthen our ability to make observations about sound. Helmholtz makes a hierarchical comparison between this focused listening and a more casual reception of sound.

“Practice and experience play a far greater part in the use of our sensory apparatus than we are usually inclined to assume…”

Hermann von Helmholtz in
Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen

The impossibility of focusing absolute attention on all the external stimulus that our bodies receive means that the strengthening of this skill requires the practice of focused aural attention. This creates an educated listening elite. It is essential to remember that Helmholtz’s listener was a product of the 19th century, almost 200 years removed from our modern setting! However, I would venture a guess that this depiction of a cerebral and educated observer of music is not as foreign as the voluminous skirts and top hats that share this chronological separation from 2021. This raises a few sticky questions.

So What?: brief questions of significance

1.) Is the Helmholtzian listening model still applicable today?

The inclusion of ear-training and musicianship courses in modern music degree plans certainly make a good case for this listening paradigm’s continued presence in the 21st century. Steege uses the last two chapters of his book to contextualize the Helmholtzian listener in education, liberal reform, and music theory history. Music theory’s transitioned focus away from harmonic progression and towards timbre was favorable for this listening model. This is supported by Steege with three case studies of theorists interacting with the Helmholtzian listener: Richard Wagner, Arnold Schoenberg, and Max Weber. Regardless of whether this listening model is applicable to contemporary music, the continued performance of German 19th-century music lends this model relevance. A historical presentation of this music that considers the original audience must acknowledge this popularized concept of listening.

2.) Is the model still publicly marketable today?

The concept of a listening elite may seem contradictory to the public audience Helmholtz was trying to reach. Even though this concept can be understood by people with a variety of backgrounds, a much smaller pool of people likely implement rigorous training for themselves. If particular music can only be appreciated with years of intensive training, then this significantly narrows potential audiences. This should inspire careful consideration for those creating and selecting music to be presented to the public. What expectation do you have for the audience’s listening? How can you best bring this music to its intended audience?

3.) How does Helmholtzian model affect performance?

In addition to the performer’s necessary consideration of the questions listed above, it is also valuable to consider the role the “double-ear” and “attention” play in a professional music career. Put in its most fundamental terms, a musician’s job is to communicate to an audience by manipulating air pressure. Crazy! (Does this make us airbenders?) We spend a lot of time focusing on the instrument and technique we use to generate sound, but rarely do we discuss the actual mechanics of how this sound is perceived. Isn’t it silly to ignore this filter through which all or our hard work is transmitted? An understanding of the ear’s function, sound’s mechanics, and the psychological interpretation of this information can go a long way to informing our own listening paradigm and production of sound. If nothing else, it can remind us that we practice a highly complex and subjective art.


Since you made it this far, hopefully your mind is a little bit blown by the complexity and importance of listening! If you would like to read more of Steege’s book, click here to find it on Amazon. (My apologies for enabling those of you prone to impulsive Amazon ordering.) Regardless of whether or not this listening model should be maintained today, it is an integral to the history of music theory, performance, and composition. Hermann von Helmholtz’s work expands well beyond his model of listening, and the odds are high that you may see his name continue to pop up in my blogging and conversations. Hopefully I have shared a bit of my enthusiasm with you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: