Melting musics, fusing sounds. Stumpf, Hornbostel and Comparative Musicology in Berlin

In R. Bod, J. Maat & T. Weststeijn (eds.), The Making of the Humanities. Vol. III: The Modern Humanities. Amsterdam University Press. pp. 391-401 (2014)
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The ancient Greeks already used to give ethnic names to their different scales, and observations on differences in music of the various nations always raised the interest of musicians and philosophers. Yet, it was only in the late nineteenth century that “comparative musicology” became an institutional science. An important role in this process was played by Carl Stumpf, a former pupil of Brentano’s who pioneered these researches in Berlin. Stumpf founded the Phonogrammarchiv to collect recordings of folk and extra-European music and a dedicated journal, the Sammelbände für vergleichende Musikwissenschaft. Gifted in the field of science no less than in that of musicology, Stumpf developed an empirically-oriented approach to phenomenology, deeply divergent from Husserl’s and highly influential over the Berlin school of Gestalt psychology. A self-declared “outsider” among armchair philosophers, Stumpf experimentally investigated the perception of sounds and the origins of musical consonance. Developing the physiological studies of Ernst Weber on the sense of touch, Stumpf discovered that two sensations of tone, given at the same time, tend to mix in a certain degree. Musical consonance – he claimed – lays in this level of “tonal fusion”, not in the allegedly “natural” series of the harmonic partials of a vibrating chord, as suggested by the naturalists of all times from Pythagoras to Stumpf’s great contemporary Hermann Helmholtz. Accordingly, no musical system can claim for preponderance over the others: Stumpf’s researches in comparative musicology served to corroborate his theses on “tonal fusion” and the psychological foundations of consonance. Although Stumpf later revised and finally abandoned this theory, its permanent value lays in its opposition to dominant naturalistic approaches. The commitment for comparative musicology at the Berlin School is then no concession to a positivistic fashion for exoticism. The fundamentally Eurocentric stance of naturalistic theories of music is also fiercely contrasted by Stumpf’s pupil Erich Hornbostel, who suggests that music ought to be considered as culture, rather than as nature, and focuses attention on the eventually melting human cultures. The Berlin school flourished until the Nazis forced most of its exponents to emigration and, for tragically obvious reasons, heavily discouraged researches on these topics.

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Riccardo Martinelli
Università degli Studi di Trieste


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