Helmholtz Notation

or, “Why didn’t someone think of this sooner?”

Herr Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (31 Aug. 1821 – 8 Sep. 1894) was another one of those perspicacious eclectics whom you are bound to run across at some point in your life, regardless of your field of study.

There were dozens of interesting but career–unrelated courses at university for an irreedemable nerd such as I, but one of the more fascinating was a History of Psychology which naturally touched on strands of western thought in philosophy, science, religion, politics, and the individual thinkers who did the thinking up. One such was Wilhelm Wundt, who believed Herman von Helmholtz.jpg
Hermann von Helmholtz
Wikimedia Commons
that “sitting and introspecting” was a reasonable way to explore the mind empirically. Among his associates was Hermann Helmholtz, who was interested in the materialist connection between mind and body; he invented, among other things, the ophthalmoscope (still used to peer inside the eye).

It occurred to me that I had heard the name before. Sure enough, there was a Helmholtz who had popped up in Physics class, specifically in relation to acoustics, and it turned out to be he, the very same. Scientist, physician, physicist, physiologist, inventor (heard of the Helmholtz resonator?), philosopher, aesthetician. And psychologist, as it turns out. Renaissance man indeed: one wonders if he didn’t carry around an extra brain or two in a briefcase.

Certainly his compatriots were aware of Helmholtz’s achievements. Not only did they add his name to various theories and theorems, the impressive-sounding Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft Deutscher Forschungszentren (“Helmholtz Assocation of German Research Centres”) was named after him.

One of the difficulties with describing musical notes in prose or technical writing is the verbosity required to get the specific note correct. Phrases like “the note c two octaves below middle c,” or “f–sharp on the top line of the treble clef” are certainly specific enough, but they take a lot of wind. Herr Helmholtz was aware of this: his work in acoustic perception meant a lot of this kind of writing in the days before typewriters. Solution? Invent a concise letter notation to identify unambiguously exactly which B–flat you mean. His combination of upper and lower–case letters, with primes (apostrophes) appears on the middle line of the illustration below.

The Acoustical Society of America adopted a modified and suitably august–sounding “scientific pitch notation” in 1939, which labelled octaves by number — starting with the lowest possible note — and the letter names of notes (first line of the chart). Then in 1982, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) protocol defined standards for electronic music, including an enharmonic numbering system for notes (third line of the chart), whereby machinery could produce and share music. Herr H. would have been impressed. But probably not surprised.

And when all is said and done, Helmholtz’s system is still the easiest to use, and continues in widespread use. No numbers to memorize, and no ambiguity: is B♯3 the same as C♭4 or C♭3, or is that the B in octave 2? The ASA has rules to determine which is which, but you don’t need to memorize those either if you just use the Helmholtz system. Did I mention how easy it is to use the Helmholtz system?