"Helmholtz, Music Theory, and Liberal-Progressive History"

Author / Artist: 
Publication Date: 
December, 2010

Hermann von Helmholtz's theory of melodic “affinity,” which he considered his primary contribution to music-theoretical thought, is inherently historicist in its conception. It seeks not only to explain local tonal relationships but also to provide a rationale for transhistorical change in musical structures. Yet this historical dimension, in many ways typical of its era, is complicated by a tenuous balance between the determinism demanded by rigorous scientific explanation and Helmholtz's evident desire to preserve a complex role for the “choice” of fundamental aesthetic principles. Such principles would include the very parameters of modern tonality, so the status of tonal “affinity,” a seemingly given and predictable attribute of musical tones, coexists uneasily in Helmholtz's writing with a humanist appreciation for the unpredictability of cultural choice and change. It also throws the physiological basis of his music theory into conflict with his ostensibly progressive treatment of non-European musics. Such tensions, along with unevenly successful efforts to resolve them, were by no means atypical of the liberal discourse of his intellectual milieu. Indeed, the unresolved challenge of reconciling a flexible aesthetics and historiography with the logical requirements of positivist knowledge aligns Helmholtz with major liberal thinkers from John Stuart Mill on.