H L F Helmholtz: Theory of music Prefaces

In 1863 Helmholtz completed the first edition of his famous book On the sensations of tone as a physiological basis for the theory of music written in German. By 1870 a third German edition had been published and Alexander J Ellis began a translation of this edition into English. Ellis was twice president of the Philological Society and was a member of the Cambridge Mathematical Society. He wrote Early English Pronunciation, and Algebra identified with geometry. In June 1875 Ellis' English translation of the third German edition was published. Helmholtz published the fourth and final German edition of the text in 1877. Ellis incorporated the changes made by Helmholtz in his fourth edition into the English translation and a second English edition was published in August 1885. In 1895 a third English edition of the translation was published.

Below we give the translation by Ellis of Helmholtz's Preface to the First German Edition and to the Third German Edition.

For the English translation of Helmholtz's Introduction see: H L F Helmholtz Theory of Music Introduction

Details given on the title page of the English translation are as follows:

On the SENSATIONS OF TONE as a physiological basis for the THEORY OF MUSIC

Hermann L F Helmholtz, M.D.
Foreign member of the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh
Professor of Physiology in the University of Heidelberg, and
Professor of Physics in the University of Berlin
Translation of the Fourth German Edition of 1877
by Alexander J Ellis (B.A., F.R.S., F.S.A., F.C.P.S., F.C.P.)

In laying before the Public the result of eight years' labour, I must first pay a debt of gratitude. The following investigations could not have been accomplished without the construction of new instruments, which did not enter into the inventory of a Physiological Institute, and which far exceeded in cost the usual resources of a German philosopher. The means for obtaining them have come to me from unusual sources. The apparatus for the artificial construction of vowels, described on pp. 121 to 126, I owe to the munificence of his Majesty King Maximilian of Bavaria, to whom German science is indebted, on so many of its fields, for ever-ready sympathy and assistance. For the construction of my Harmonium in perfectly natural intonation, described on p. 316, I was able to use the Soemmering prize which had been awarded me by the Senckenberg Physical Society (die Senckenbergische naturforschende Gesellschaft) at Frankfurt-on-Main. While publicly repeating the expression of my gratitude for this assistance in my investigations, I hope that the investigations themselves as set forth in this book will prove far better than mere words how earnestly I have endeavoured to make a worthy use of the means thus placed at my command.


HEIDELBERG: October, 1862.

The present Third Edition has been much more altered in some parts than the second. Thus in the sixth chapter I have been able to make use of the new physiological and anatomical researches on the ear. This has led to a modification of my view of the action of Corti's arches. Again, it appears that the peculiar articulation between the auditory ossicles called - hammer' and 'anvil' might easily cause within the ear itself the formation of harmonic upper partial tones for simple tones which are sounded loudly. By this means that peculiar series of upper partial tones, on the existence of which the present theory of music is essentially founded, receives a new subjective value, entirely independent of external alterations in the quality of tone. To illustrate the anatomical descriptions, I have been able to add a series of new woodcuts, principally from Henle's Manual of Anatomy, with the author's permission, for which I here take the opportunity of publicly thanking him.

I have made many changes in re-editing the section on the History of Music, and hope that I have improved its connection. I must, however, request the reader to regard this section as a mere compilation from secondary sources; I have neither time nor preliminary knowledge sufficient for original studies in this extremely difficult field. The older history of music to the commencement of Discant, is scarcely more than a confused heap of secondary subjects, while we can only make hypotheses concerning the principal matters in question. Of course, however, every theory of music must endeavour to bring some order into this chaos, and it cannot be denied that it contains many important facts.

For the representation of pitch in just or natural intonation, I have abandoned the method originally proposed by Hauptmann, which was not sufficiently clear in involved cases, and have adopted the system of Herr A von Oettingen [p. 276], as had already been done in M G Guéroult's French translation of this book.

[A comparison of the Third with the Second editions, showing the changes and additions individually, is here omitted.]
If I may be allowed in conclusion to add a few words on the reception experienced by the Theory of Music here propounded, I should say that published objections almost exclusively relate to my Theory of Consonance, as if this were the pith of the matter. Those who prefer mechanical explanations express their regret at my having left any room in this field for the action of artistic invention and aesthetic inclination, and they have endeavoured to complete my system by new numerical speculations. Other critics with more metaphysical proclivities have rejected my Theory of Consonance, and with it, as they imagine, my whole Theory of Music, as too coarsely mechanical.

I hope my critics will excuse me if I conclude from the opposite nature of their objections, that I have struck out nearly the right path. As to my Theory of Consonance, I must claim it to be a mere systematisation of observed facts (with the exception of the functions of the cochlea of the ear, which is moreover an hypothesis that may be entirely dispensed with). But I consider it a mistake to make the Theory of Consonance the essential foundation of the Theory of Music, and I had thought that this opinion was clearly enough expressed in my book. The essential basis of Music is Melody. Harmony has become to Western Europeans during the last three centuries an essential, and, to our present taste, indispensable means of strengthening melodic relations, but finely developed music existed for thousands of years and still exists in ultra-European nations, without any harmony at all. And to my metaphysico-aesthetical opponents I must reply, that I cannot think I have undervalued the artistic emotions of the human mind in the Theory of Melodic Construction, by endeavouring to establish the physiological facts on which aesthetic feeling is based. But to those who think I have not gone far enough in my physical explanations, I answer, that in the first place a natural philosopher is never bound to construct systems about everything he knows and does not know, and secondly, that I should consider a theory which claimed to have shown that all the laws of modern Thorough Bass were natural necessities, to stand condemned as having proved too much.

Musicians have found most fault with the manner in which I have characterised the Minor Mode. I must refer in reply to those very accessible documents, the musical compositions Of A.D. 1500 to A.D. 1750, during which the modern Minor was developed. These will show how slow and fluctuating was its development, and that the last traces of its incomplete state are still visible in the works of Sebastian Bach and Handel.

HEIDELBERG: May, 1870.

Last Updated April 2007