Project Description

Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer

Helmholtz sound synthesizer

Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer

Hermann von Helmholtz, 1821-1894

Born in Potsdam, Germany, Helmholtz was a scientist and philosopher, best known for his work in physiology, electrodynamics, and for his law of the conservation of energy. He was particularly concerned with theories of vision and the mechanics of the eye. In 1851, Helmholtz invented the ophthalmoscope, a tool enabling observation inside of the eye. He is also known for his experiments on the speed at which signals travel along nerves, which he studied on a frog model.

Helmholtz studied the psychology of acoustics and sound perception, for which he used tools such as the “Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer,” pictured here. Ten electromagnetically-driven tuning forks are each paired with a brass resonator tuned to the same frequency. The instrument was not intended as a musical instrument but as a scientific device to demonstrate and analyze the effect of overtones in complex sound. One of the chief goals was to better understand the nature of speech and the production of vowel sounds, which are produced by resonant overtones and mechanically created by the muscles of the vocal tract.

Helmholtz also employed resonators, or tone detectors, in his work on sound perception. These instruments were tuned to respond to specific frequencies of sound. Where an astronomer or chemist would use a prism to separate light into the elemental colors that composed the source, Helmholtz used a bank of resonators in order to analyze sounds into their elemental tones. Resonators were used to confirm Ohm’s theory that complex sounds were the Fourier sum of simple sinusoidal sound waves or harmonics.

Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (1997-1-0893)–ca 1865 (Image Helmholtz Syn)

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Helmholtz Resonators

Helmholtz Resonator

Resonators are tone detectors, being tuned to respond to specific frequencies of sound. Similar to an astronomer or chemist using a prism to separate light into the elemental colors that composed the source, Hermann von Helmholtz used a bank of resonators in order to analyze sounds into their elemental tones. Resonators were used to confirm Ohm’s theory that complex sounds were the Fourier sum of simple sinusoidal sound waves or harmonics.

Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (1997-1-0893)–ca 1865-1891 (Image Helmholtz Res)

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