The Mysteries of Music

Author: Benjamin Errington

Samuel Sianipar 4tnd3hsw3pm Unsplash 2

Music is all around us. It seeps into our unconscious while we are shopping, and accompanies us as we take a coffee with friends. Many of us use music streaming services, and even those who do not actively listen to music on a regular basis, find that it accompanies our lives daily in some shape or form. What we often forget, is the careful and highly specialized work of sound designers, which makes music "sound good" and aesthetically pleasing. Although Music has been around as long as we have, the advent of electronic music and computers has led to new and highly technical approaches to sound design that did not exist until half a century ago involving synthesizers, sequencers and, still more recently, all-powerful digital audio workstations. Yet, long before "sound design" became the norm, scientists, philosophers and literati tried to make sense of the great diversity and musicality of sounds, spanning from the sounds of nature, to the multiple sonic possibilities offered by musical instruments.

If you ask a contemporary sound designer to explain the structure of a particular sound or "patch", they will be able to do so with mind-boggling detail. This kind of vocabulary for sound has not been around forever: Beyond the specialized fields of sound design and sound engineering, older disciplines approach the mystery of sound and its endless variety from various perspectives. Music psychology, for example, has explored the effect of sound (music) on perception. Psychoacoustics explores similar dimensions of sound, but with a greater emphasis on the raw materials of sound, as it were. Furthermore, the oldest discipline of philosophy has long-since had something to say on the subject, going back to the passages on the perception of sound in "On the Soul".

German Romanticism was a rich and productive period for human thought, and began with the so-called Early Romantics (Frühromantiker) of the 1790s. This period was characterized by efforts to unite all existing disciplines. This was the milieu that produced the famous trio of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. There were also important literary figures, who kept one foot in the philosophical pool, and the other, in the pool of what we more ordinarily consider "literature". These figures included Schiller, Hölderlin, Novalis and the Schegel brothers. Most of these names are familiar to students of German philosophy and letters, although some are more well-known. Recent scholarship has started to see all these figures as equally important players in that exciting development in the history of ideas that was Early German Romanticism.

Without 21st-century equipment, the Romantic's analysis of sound departed from the behavior of strings, bells, and everyday objects. Descriptions rested, as was customary in the period, on an observational, "empirical" basis. Chladni, for example, identified that sound waves produced shapes, or "figures" on plates and on the surface of water and so found a visual way of interpreting various sounds. Around this time, a new dimension of sound began to be recognised, namely, timbre. Timbre was the dimension of sound that expressed the difference between the sounds of particular musical instruments. Jean-Jacques Rousseau even included this term in his revolutionary contributions to Diderot’s encyclopedia, which greatly influenced Enlightenment-thought, and the Romantic movement that emerged after.

The recognition of timbre as a discrete musical quality was the beginning of a new approach to sound, which has culminated in today’s technologies of sound design. But the process was a gradual one. The philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries responded to the development in music of the composers of the day, who were themselves often ahead of the "theory" of their own time. For example, Haydn’s use of Instruments in his symphonies predates the more theoretical understanding of timbre as a musical category and aesthetic attribute in contemporary writings.

Larisa Birta Slbocnlwnha
String quartet in Oradea, Romania

Timbre is perhaps, even today, one of the more mysterious dimensions of sound, and the most difficult to understand. The sound designer has a detailed knowledge of waveforms and how they can be modified and combined to produce interesting and pleasing sounds. However, ask a sound designer a more philosophical question, and they will probably acknowledge that knowing which way to turn the dial of a synth or with their mouse on a screen is not the same as explaining what really makes certain sounds so "musical" and interesting to us as human beings. While they lacked the technical knowledge we have, the German Romantics were surprisingly good at exploring these "deeper" questions.

For the German Romantics, sound was part of a greater cosmic mystery, which, as the ancient Greeks had also thought, encompassed the whole cosmos. The way in which the planets and stars interact was "musical" in that it was ordered in a pleasing and wondrous way. The human body had a similar order and proportion about it which they often referred to as musica Humana. Timbre, or the distinct qualities of different musical instruments, was a further reflection of this order and of a recognisable unity (the sound of that particular instrument) in multiplicity (varied musical notes and effects). Based on Chladni’s findings, German Romantic thinkers believed that the patterns that sound made on water and in sand and plates reflected a deeper cosmic order, and were a reflection of unifying principles that could be a formula for all of nature. Their ideas reflect the wonder and mystery behind the sound designer’s dial turning, and the result is all around us.

Suggested further reading:

Bonds, Mark Evans, "Idealism and the Aesthetics of Instrumental Music at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century", in Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 50, No. 2/3 (Summer - Autumn, 1997), pp. 387-420

Dolan, Emily I. and Alexander Rehding (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Timbre, New York, Oxford University Press, 2018

Dolan, Emily I., The Orchestral Revolution: Haydn and the Technologies of Timbre, University of Pennsylvania, Cambridge University Press, 2013

Krell, David Farrell, "Brazen Wheels: F. W. J. Schelling on the Origins of Music and Tragedy" in Jost Hermand and Gerhard Richter (eds.), Sound Figures of Modernity: German Music and Philosophy, University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 2006, pp.64 - 91

About the author


Benjamin J Errington, Ph.D is a musician and academic writer based in Ireland. His interest in musical aesthetics began during his undergraduate degree in philosophy, which led to the completion of a doctorate in Germanic studies from Trinity College, Dublin. Recently his research has encompassed the philosophies of early German Romanticism in relation to music and, particularly, timbre. He plays the violin, viola and is interested in composition and a wide range of music styles, and performs regularly with the National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin.


Originally published by Benjamin Errington at on October 10, 2023.