The Mismeasure of Music: Eugenics, Marketing, and the Science of Musical Ability

[Presented at the “Sonic Circulations” conference, 2018.]


In 1923 the psychologist of music Carl E. Seashore gave a speech to the International Congress of Eugenics in New York, in which he spoke enthusiastically of the musical possibilities afforded by the burgeoning sciences of race and heredity. To an audience of scientists and wealthy industrialists—the drivers of the American eugenics movement—Seashore proposed that the capacity for musical excellence was a heritable trait, and that as such it was “quite within the power of future generations to enhance the quality and degree of musical talent by conscious selection.” This call to action was heeded. With the support of the American Eugenics Society and its leading researcher, Charles Davenport, Seashore embarked on a decade-long experiment at the Eastman School of Music, seeking to test the validity of what would become his crowning achievement, a set of tests developed over the course of his career: The Seashore Measures of Musical Talent. The Measures, a battery of listening tests assessing one’s ability to discriminate between increasingly similar musical sounds, were deemed a triumph, and their dissemination became a eugenic priority. 

This paper follows the Seashore Measures as they circulated within and without the academy, in schools, in labs, and in homes, after their publication on 6 discs by Columbia in 1919: from eugenic fieldwork in Jamaica to school band auditions in New York. Following recent studies highlighting the outsized role of advertising in the development of eugenics as a social movement, the paper focuses on how the measures were marketed, as part of their 1920s transformation from laboratory instrument to consumer product. As considerable revisions were made to the Measures to fit the machine’s demands, the phonograph itself also featured prominently in the measures’ marketing, mobilising discourses of acoustic fidelity, I argue, in the service of racial purity. In reintegrating these histories of music psychology, commercial recording, and eugenics, this paper aims first to expand on existing studies of music and scientific racism, moving toward a clearer history of racialized musical epistemologies; and second, to ask how such a history might help address contemporary questions surrounding the role of scientific research, and commerce, in music studies.

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