Martha Teghtsoonian

Reflections on the Life and Work of Bertram Scharf (1931-2011)

 In Memoriam  Comments Off on Reflections on the Life and Work of Bertram Scharf (1931-2011)
Jan 102015

Robert & Martha Teghtsoonian
Smith College Northampton, Massachusetts

We first met Bert in September, 1955, when all three of us were part of the incoming class of graduate students in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. For us, his most distinctive feature was the black beret that he always wore outdoors, and sometimes indoors as well. We might have taken him for French, but his broad Bronx accent betrayed his true origin. The beret was indeed French; he had acquired it while studying in Paris where he earned a Diplôme at the Université de Paris, and for us it remained a symbol of Bert’s deep affection for France. With his doctorate from Harvard, he was hired to teach and do research at Northeastern University in Boston, and remained there for the rest of his professional career.

In the late 1970s he began to spend his summers in Marseille, working as a Visiting Scientist in the Laboratoire de Mécanique et d’Acoustique. These summer visits grew into full years while on sabbatical leave, and he and his wife Anna-Liisa bought an apartment in nearby Cassis with an eye to becoming permanent residents there. He began a very productive collaboration with Georges Canévet, and they co-authored a number of publications dealing with the subject of loudness.

In 1983 we visited with the Scharfs and discussed the idea of creating an international society for those interested in the field of psychophysics. That discussion, along with conversations with Birgitta Berglund and Ulf Berglund, led to an informal meeting the following year in a sunny plaza in Cassis to consider what form such a society would take. In 1985, the first meeting of the International Society for Psychophysics was held in Marseille, hosted by Scharf and Canévet. It was judged to be a great success, and further meetings have taken place every year since then.

The study of loudness was a continuing interest throughout his career, and he became a leading authority on that topic. Our collaboration with him was based on his work on loudness adaptation. Among the many aspects of loudness that he pursued was the effect of duration on the loudness of a pure tone. Research by others had concluded that prolonged exposure to a tone of fixed amplitude resulted in adaptation: the longer the tone lasted the softer it sounded. But Bert showed that, to a large degree, this finding was an artifact of the method used, adjusting the level of a brief tone presented to the contralateral ear to match the loudness of the continuous tone presented to the other. He showed that when the loudness of the continuous tone is measured by the method of magnitude estimation (a technique devised by his thesis adviser, S.S.Stevens), adaptation occurred to a modest degree but only for relatively weak or high-frequency tones.

Using the same technique, he went on to ask about the loudness of a prolonged tone that was in fact steadily decreasing in amplitude. Canévet had found that as duration increased, the loudness of such a tone became increasingly softer than would have been the case for a steady tone presented at the same level for the same duration. Scharf and Canévet, reporting on further investigations of this phenomenon, named it decruitment, and it has become the focus of many reports on the perception of signals that vary in amplitude.

Of course there were many other research problems that interested him, and in recent years he undertook a program of research on attention with a colleague in Boston. Perhaps others will write further about that interest and others.

We had the pleasure of collaborating with Bert both in his lab at Northeastern and at the LMA in Marseille, and of visiting with him and his wife (always generous hosts) in Boston and Cassis. We had a long-running conversation with him, not only on psychological research, but on politics, religion, and economics, to say nothing of riding a bicycle. Suffice it to say that he had strongly held opinions in all of these areas, and those conversations were very lively.

We miss him—for his expertise in all matters having to do with loudness, for his many contributions to the ISP, and for his friendship


January 1, 2015.