The research project Sound and Materialism in the 19th century, based at the University of Cambridge, investigates a scientific and a materialist perspective on music and sound in the 19th century to enlarge and enrich our understanding of the dialogue between 19th-century music and natural science.

Examining in particular how a scientific-materialist conception of sound was formed alongside a dominant culture of romantic idealism, the project placing itself at the intersection of historical musicology and the history and philosophy of science. It project investigates the view that sound, instead of the property of metaphysics, was also regarded by writers, composers, scientists and engineers as tangible, material and subject to physical laws. This scientific thinking was not anathema but—at key moments—intrinsic to music aesthetics and criticism. Philosophies of mind and theories of the creative process also drew on mechanical rules of causality and associative ‘laws’ and the technological innovations brought about by scientific research (from steam trains to stethoscopes) were accompanied by new concepts and new ways of listening that radically impacted the sound world of composers, critics and performers.

In short, the project seeks to uncover a substantively integrated view of the musical and scientific culture of the 19th century.