Nature’s Pitch: John Herschel and the musical limits of Victorian scientific authority

by Dr. Edward Gillin.

During the nineteenth century the question of who should be trusted to produce scientific knowledge was a tricky one to answer.  Certainly until the 1860s, it wasn’t exactly clear what a ‘scientist’ was.  While this meant that natural philosophers had to work to cultivate their own credentials, it also meant that the boundaries between the sciences and the arts, as well as between the sciences and politics and religion, were ambiguous.  This was especially apparent when it came to science’s relationship with music.  Increasingly throughout the nineteenth century, natural philosophers, experimentalists, and mathematicians invested time into the study of sound and, often, music specifically.  In 1820s’ London, for example, Charles Wheatstone had performed experiments which connected natural phenomena with musical instruments.  But perhaps no one came to understand the limits of scientific authority within the practice of music quite like John Herschel.

Herschel was probably the most celebrated gentleman of science in early-Victorian Britain.  His father William, a Hanoverian bandmaster, organist, and discoverer of Uranus, had combined a musical career with a love of astronomy.  John Herschel, in contrast, was no musicians, but an excellent mathematician, devoting his energies to astronomical cataloguing on an industrial scale.  Yet Herschel was not only the nation’s premier authority on astronomy, but also on sound.  His entry, ‘Sound’, for the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana in 1830 was the foremost work in English on sonorous phenomena for almost half a century.  When asked for a tract on sound in 1873, James Clerk Maxwell replied that beyond Helmholtz in German and Herschel in English, there was nothing worth reading.  It was not until Baron Rayleigh’s Theory of Sound (1877) and Alexander Ellis’ translation of Helmholtz’s Tonempfindungen (1875) that Herschel’s work was surpassed.

For all this, Herschel found that applying theoretical knowledge of sound practically to music was difficult.  When, in 1859, the Society of Arts established a committee to reform the nation’s musical pitch and introduce a standard frequency for C, Herschel took the initiative, campaigning for what he believed would be a mathematically-grounded measure.  Over the previous forty years the frequency at which orchestras across Britain played had increased rapidly.  The cause of this escalation was the widespread conviction that a higher frequency produced a more ‘brilliant’ musical effect, but it also meant that many eighteenth-century compositions sounded noticeably different.  At the same time, there was a widespread consensus that pitch had risen so high that it was damaging the voices of vocalists.  While most London orchestras were playing C at over 546 vibrations per second, the Society of Arts committee recommended 528.

Herschel however, demanded the new standard be C512.  In a letter to the committee, which he had published in several newspapers, Herschel argued that 512 was a standard which could claim to be taken from nature.  He explained that this C, ‘being the ninth Octave of a fundamental note corresponding to one vibration per second, has a claim to universal reception on the score of intrinsic simplicity, convenience of memory, and reference to a natural unit’.  Such a mathematical ideal was based on the observation that a string sounding the lowest audible C vibrated sixteen times per second, each subsequent C in the scale increased by the power of two (16, 32, 64, 128, etc.), so that C above middle C would vibrate at a frequency of 512.  This insistence on finding a natural measure fulfilled Herschel’s ideals of a standard.  In debates over Britain’s weights and measures he had argued that any standard had have universal claims, be recoverable from nature if lost, and be capable of physical embodiment.

Despite the scientific credentials of C512, the musically-inclined committee rejected Herschel’s proposal.  When the august body reported its findings on pitch at a public meeting in 1860, Herschel attended, launching a final effort for 512.  After a stormy encounter and some heated discussions, the committee agreed on 528, preferring its euphonic quality and believing this more likely to be accepted by Britain’s musical community.  The Society of Arts adopted this standard, though in practice few followed this and pitch continued to escalate throughout the century.  Nevertheless, this had provided Herschel, and, indeed, all individuals of scientific aspirations, with a stark lesson on the limits of experimental or mathematical knowledge as a basis for authority.  In the arts, it was not enough to claim to be scientific, as Herschel did on the question of pitch, to exert influence.  In music, scientific knowledge had to compete with the experience-grounded knowledge of musicians, composers, performers, instrument-builders, and audiences.  While Herschel enjoyed success in defining sound, and specifically musical phenomena, he struggled to contribute to the conduct and regulation of the art.

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