Physics in Perspective

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 417–439

Hearing Pygmalion’s Kiss: A Scientific Object at the Paris Opéra


DOI: 10.1007/s00016-014-0148-2

Cite this article as:
Lambert, K. Phys. Perspect. (2014) 16: 417. doi:10.1007/s00016-014-0148-2


In 1748, in his acte de ballet Pygmalion, composer and music theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau arranged the Paris Opéra orchestra to play “nature’s chord,” harmonies that reproduced the overtones an expert ear could detect in every natural musical vibrating body. The following year Rameau presented his music theory to the French Royal Academy of Sciences for their endorsement. Disillusionment with the promise of Cartesian mechanics as a source of a unified understanding of nature opened up the possibility that matter might have properties beyond extension and motion, such as aversion, desire, and memory. Speculations about this material sensibility also coincided with increasing claims about the authority of spontaneous emotion and feeling. The experience of music at the opera was a significant resource for claims about the cultural authority of sensibility.


Jean-Philippe Rameau Pygmalion corps sonore vibrating bodies materialism Friedrich Grimm Denis Diderot 

Copyright information

© Springer Basel 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Liberal Studies DepartmentCalifornia State University FullertonFullertonUSA

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