Exercising Musical Minds: Music and Phrenology in London, ca. 1830

David J Trippett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


The icon of the machine in early nineteenth-century Britain was subject to a number of contemporary critiques. In Thomas Carlyle’s Spirit of the Times (1829), he cautioned about their social status: “not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also.” This kind of reactionary criticism gave rise to numerous caricatures by William Heath and Thomas McLean (et al.) about “the march of intellect” that was upending society and ending what Carlyle called “the old natural methods.”

Pedagogy and the life of the mind were implicated within this critique, (“we have machines for education: Lancastrian machines; Hamiltonian machines; monitors, maps and emblems”), and this article asks to what extent education in music composition was influenced by this. In particular, this involves the emerging science of phrenology and its relation to materialism. A number of journal articles appeared on the topic of music and phrenology, bolstered by the establishment, in 1823, of the London Phrenological Society, and, in 1838, its sister organization, the British Phrenological Association. Major publications by figures such as George Combe (Essays on Phrenology [1819]; Elements of Phrenology [1824]; Constitution of Man [1828]) and Robert Chambers (Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation [1844]), place the creative imagination, music and the “natural” life of the mind into a fraught discourse of music and materialism.

The cost of a material mind was a perceived loss of contact with the “gifts of nature … the dynamical nature of man … the mystic depths of man’s soul” (Carlyle), but reactionary criticism did not have the last word. The concept of machine was also invested with magical potential to transform matter, to generate energy, and can be understood as a new ideal type of mechanism, one associated with “the metamorphoses of the fantastic.” (Tresch 2012). With particular reference to amateurs musicians and the popular appeal of phrenological ‘exercise,’ and of devices such as Johann Bernhard Logier’s ‘chiroplast,’ I examine these conflicting ideals and anxieties over mechanism, as paradigm and rallying cry, in the context of music pedagogy during the second quarter of the century.
Original languageEnglish
Journal19th-Century Music
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2015


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