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The doctor who laid the groundwork for recorded sound

Thursday, Dec. 29, is the 200th birthday of Carl Ludwig (1816-95), the German physician who revolutionized the study of physiology. An assiduous, elegant experimenter, Ludwig analyzed bodily processes both humble (urine) and exalted (blood) to demonstrate that the same chemical and physical laws applied to living and non-living materials alike.

Along the way, Ludwig inadvertently laid the groundwork for recorded sound. In the 1840s, he invented the kymograph: a soot-coated piece of paper wrapped around a rotating cylinder, across which a needle scratched a continuous record of transmitted movement or vibration. Ludwig first used it to chart variations in the respiration and blood pressure of dogs and horses. But others realized the machine could also make a representation of a sound source — place a tuning fork in contact with the needle, say, and the vibrations produced an undulating line.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonoautograph, developed in the late 1850s, went a step further, creating graphic representations of sounds carried through the air. Like Ludwig’s original kymograms, Scott’s phonoautograms were intended solely as visual records (though 21st-century computer technology has converted them back into low-fidelity but recognizable sounds). But the possibilities were evident. Thomas Edison’s phonograph got there first — with a cylindrical design that owed more than a little to Ludwig’s kymograph.

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There was also, potentially, an indirect kymographic influence on music. Even after the advent of the phonograph, the kymograph remained an important tool in studying sound and music. Raymond Herbert Stetson, for instance, a psychologist with a musical bent, utilized it extensively. When Stetson was a Harvard graduate student, with teachers including the legendary William James, his kymograph records of muscle movements underpinned a theory of rhythm perception; later, he turned his kymographic attention to phonetics, analyzing speech and singing as a continuous physical process.

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Composer and musicologist Robin Maconie has raised the tantalizing possibility of Stetson’s influence on the musical avant-garde. Stetson spent a year in Paris in the 1920s, working with the French phonetician Jean-Pierre Rousselot on ideas of sound that, Maconie suggests, slipped into Parisian intellectual life and thus into the course of 20th-century modern music. (Among Stetson’s classmates under James was writer Gertrude Stein, who also ended up in Paris, central to the era’s cultural ferment.) Maconie has noted how Stetson’s three-part structuring of phonetic syllables echoes in composer Olivier Messiaen’s conception of rhythm. It’s speculation, but of an apposite kind: kymograph-derived concepts, like the apparatus itself, drawing a trace across the spin of sonic history.

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.