Concept and contents by Sonja Duggen and Cordula Klemm

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Science and music are based on the same characteristics leading to success –enthusiasm and passion, improvisation and organization –along with endurance and stamina. Both musicians and scientists are driven by the desire to explore a theme. They seek dialogue with others to exchange ideas and develop new approaches.

Scientists are often also passionate musicians: Albert Einstein, who can be seen in numerous photos with a violin case, loved Bach and Mozart. He played regularly with colleagues and also performed publicly. Werner Heisenberg can be heard as a soloist in a historic recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor. Alexander Borodin, known today as a composer, was by profession a professor of chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg and was one of the pioneers of organic chemistry in Russia. In one of his experiments on free fall, Galileo Galilei, an accomplished lutenist, measured time intervals by positioning the strings of a lute on an inclined plane to render regular beats as the ball rolled over them. Herman von Helmholtz, after whom our center is named, saw many commonalities between the practice of music and the analysis of natural processes. He was an excellent pianist and intensively studied the physical, mathematical, physiological bases of perceiving and producing music.

Hermann von Helmholtz and the Acoustics of the Piano

Hermann von Helmholtz was a professor for physiology and rector of the University of Heidelberg, when his book “On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music” was published in 1863. The English translation was published in New York in 1895, and a reprint of the English edition was published in 1954. The versatile scientist had worked eight years on the comprehensive book alongside his research on the physiology of the eye and on the theory of color vision. He described how the physical properties of the vibrations and the physiological features of the ear determine our perception of music. By means of mathematics, he explained the importance of the overtones for the tone color of instruments.

Helmholtz developed the resonator named after him to investigate sound mixtures. From his observations, he derived detailed instructions on how to improve instruments. The New York Steinway company utilized these findings for the further development of its concert grand piano. Theodore and William Steinway consulted Helmholtz and provided him with instruments for his experiments.

Günther Wess and the Helmholtz Grand Piano

Günther Wess, CEO of Helmholtz Zentrum München, first became aware of the acoustic research of Hermann von Helmholtz at a discussion event on music theory.

As an enthusiastic organist he delved into his writings. During his research, he came across the Helmholtz grand piano in the Deutsches Museum. It is an experimental instrument that was made available to Hermann von Helmholtz by the Steinway company.

Today’s grand pianos take into account Helmholtz’ findings on the sound of the partials (overtones) of the strings. The lengths of the mute string ends are in a specific ratio to the sounding string length. Because these partials resonate at the same time, they enhance the brilliance of the tone. The Steinway piano applied this principle for the first time.

Günther Wess is scientific director of Helmholtz Zentrum München and vice president of Health in the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres

The Helmholtz Grand Piano

The Helmholtz grand piano in the Deutsches Museum contains an early form of the duplex scale patented by the Steinway company in 1872. Silke Berdux, curator of musical instruments, explains the special features of the instrument to Wolfgang Heckl and Günther Wess.

The Helmholtz Grand Piano in the Deutsches Museum

  • Wolfgang Heckl, director general of the Deutsches Museum
  • Günther Wess, CEO of Helmholtz Zentrum München
  • Silke Berdux, curator of musical instruments (from left)

Improvisation and Organization

Wolfgang Heckl and Günther Wess try out the Helmholtz grand piano. For both scientists, improvisation and organization are the basic requirement for creative work and making music.

  • Wolfgang Heckl, director general of the Deutsches Museum
  • Günther Wess, CEO of Helmholtz Zentrum München (from left)