Benjamin Steege studies the history of music theory and aesthetics in the 19th and 20th centuries, with particular attention to early modernism. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Music at Columbia University. His book, Helmholtz and the Modern Listener (Cambridge University Press, 2012), explores the relationship among musical thought, experimental science, and projects of liberal reform in the 19th century.
Steege’s current project focuses on the contest between psychological and anti-psychological views of music in the 20th century. Whereas a long tradition of belief views music as quintessentially psychological in character, this study asks, “What might it mean to deny that music is best thought of primarily as a matter of private inner experience? And why would this kind of doubt be raised at a given historical moment?” Between roughly 1900 and 1950, answers to these questions generally tend along two different orientations: on one hand, a sense that value emerges with the world itself rather than in interior perception or cognition; on the other hand, a disillusionment with the ironic inadequacy of available psychological theory for capturing the fullness of the very self it promises to know. Steege seeks to recover these contrarian, minority attitudes and evaluate their ethical challenges from a historical perspective.
Steege received his PhD in music from Harvard University in 2007. His work has recently been supported by research fellowships from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others.