Rachel Mundy will give a lecture titled “Sound Evaluation: Animals and the Measure of Musical Difference."
Since the advent of biological evolutionism in the late 1800s, animals’ bodies and voices have epitomized notions of natural difference. In the early twentieth century, this tradition found voice in a series of curious comparisons between the lives of animals in the laboratory, and the lives of songs on the phonograph.
Starting with these strange comparisons between musical knowledge and animal death, I trace a series of unexpected connections back in time between the study of music, the phonograph, and animal laboratory research. Drawing on laboratory handbooks and other primary and secondary sources, I show that the phonograph—the origin of modern sound recording—was built out of the tools of animal vivisection developed in mid-nineteenth century German physiology. By connecting the dots between listeners and animal lives, I show how the evaluation of animal life became a way to value music and, more broadly, a way to define the boundaries of “humanistic” knowledge in modern society.
Rachel Mundy is an Assistant Professor of Music in the Arts, Culture, & Media program at Rutgers University in Newark. She specializes in twentieth-century sonic culture with interests at the juncture of music, the history of science, and animal studies. Her book Animal Musicalities, under contract with Wesleyan University Press, traces comparisons between human and animal songs from social Darwinism through the postwar rejection of racial science. By exploring music’s taxonomies, Mundy traces the modern notion of human identity to a century of comparisons between species, genders, races, and other categories of difference.