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On the Sensations of Tone (Dover Books on Music) Paperback – June 1, 1954

4.3 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Margenau is Eugene Higgins Professor Emeritus of Physics and Natural Philosophy at Yale University.
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Product Details

  • Series: Dover Books on Music
  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Dover Publications; 2nd ed. edition (June 1, 1954)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0486607534
  • ISBN-13: 978-0486607535
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #238,073 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Helmholtz's Sensations of Tone became an almost instant classic in the study of hearing when it was published in 1863. It combined the physics, physiology and psychological aspects of hearing in an attempt to explain the origins of musical harmony and dissonance. Though not easy reading, it is accessible to the non-specialist. However it also provides an important historical resource for the specialist and helps one to understand the origins of so much of contemporary hearing research. Indeed, in many ways Helmholtz reads more like a contemporary than a long-past founding father. The appendices provided by the translator are helpful as well. Finally, the inexpensive paperback edition from Dover makes this book an excellent bargain.
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Format: Paperback
This book is of historical interest only, I think; it's very well written, but a lot of its content is mind bogglingly outdated, ancient. If you need a readable quick intro into sound, read Jeans's book (the first part of it is updated Helmholtz). Then, if you still need to (as in "know specifically what I'm after and it can be found only in Helmholtz"), you can pick this book; but otherwise, resorting to modern literature will be a much better investment of your time.
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By A Customer on March 27, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is worthwhile for the reasons already cited (so I need not rehearse them), but it is important to recognize that much of it has been superceded or disproved. I hope those prospective purchasers who have found their way here are aware of Juan Roederer's THE PHYSICS AND PSYCHOPHISICS OF MUSIC--very much recommended!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is an absolutely wonderful book. Not only does it lay the foundations for psycho-acoustics, but it documents the brilliance and creativity shown by Helmholtz in devising experiments to understand the nature of sound and its perception that relied purely on Victorian pre-electronic technology. Why only one star? Because Dover has botched the current reprinting.

I have a Dover printing from the 1980s, which I love, and bought a couple of new copies to give to musician/techie friends who hadn't heard of it. Alas, while the current printing (which can be identified by an orange colored spine, where the older Dover printings had a spine the same grey-green color as the front cover) still contains the statement on the copyright page "This Dover edition, first published in 1954, is an unabridged and unaltered of the second (1885) edition of the Ellis translation", it's not true. Some of the illustrations have been vandalized! This is quite obvious on page 40, where there's an engraving of a resonator box with a tuning fork on the top. On my 20th century copy, and on the digital version on Google Books, it's very clear. In the orange-spined 21st century reprint, someone took it on themselves to modify the image to make the tuning fork unrecognizable and the diagram incomprehensible. I don't see how it could be a printing error - it's not a distortion of a single image, nor a doubling of the whole image, but a small amount of graphic copy-and-pasted over the original. The best guess we have is that it was done for copyright protection, but in a book like this, that would amount to scientific and historical vandalism.
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Format: Paperback
Part 1 discusses how tones may be perceived as built up by the base tone and the "harmonic upper partial tones". These upper partial tones are what distinguishes different instruments and they determine the "quality of the tone"; e.g. "if only the unevenly numbered partials are present ... the quality of the tone is hollow, and, when a large number of such upper partials are present, nasal", etc. (p. 119). Helmholtz's model of the ear has it that there is a spectrum of hairs in the ear, each with its own mode of vibration. When we hear a tone it is decomposed into its partials through "sympathetic resonance" of the corresponding hairs, and it is this information--i.e. essentially Fourier coefficients--that is sent to the brain.

Part 2 discusses the theory of consonance. Again, the Fourier analysis point of view is the key. The consonance or dissonance of two tones is determined by the interaction of the partials of the tones, giving mathematical precision to the idea that "two consonant tones flow on quietly side by side in an undisturbed stream; dissonant tones cut one another up into separate pulses of tone" (p. 226). Thus one can claim that "ultimately, then, the reason of the rational numerical relations of Pythagoras is to be found in the theorem of Fourier, and in one sense this theorem may be considered as the prime source of the theory of harmony" and so "the enigma which, about 2500 years ago, Pythagoras proposed to science ... 'Why is consonance determined by the ratios of small whole numbers?' has been solved by the discovery that the ear resolves all complex sounds into pendular oscillations ... and that it regards as harmonious only such excitement of the nerves as continue without disturbance" (p. 229).
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book deals with the physics of music, requires familiarity with musical terms and with at least basics of physics /math. It could be challenging to read, but for those interested in physics behind perception of musics it is essential reading.
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