Posts Tagged ‘science’

We return to my grandpa’s journal of job-related facts and random trivia for another nugget.

I always enjoy finding some topic or trivia fact of my grandfather’s that interests me too.

The factoid about stacked Life magazines from my last post wasn’t really one of those; I don’t have a personal relationship with Life magazine.

I do have a personal relationship with music. I play it sometimes. I listen to it a lot. I like learning about the technical details of making it, and about the lightning flashes of creativity that also make it happen.

My grandpa was in the same place. So I imagine the tidbit at the heart of this post grabbed his brain in much the same way it grabbed mine, and inspired some of the same thoughts and questions:


Non-musical readers might wonder what the big deal is about the A note above middle C (as in, the middle of the piano keyboard). To them, it might seem like just one among the 88 notes on a standard piano.

That particular note has a special importance to musicians and those who build and tune instruments.

A at the frequency of 440 hertz has been endorsed (though not universally adopted — more on that later) as an international pitch standard for the tuning of instruments. It’s such a significant note, in fact, that it has its own Wikipedia entry.

Hundreds of years ago, there was no single tuning pitch, and the intonation of instruments could significantly vary even within the same city. The use of tuning forks did not help, as they were not all standardized at first.

There was also pressure over time to shift pitch upward. This favors stringed instruments (they sound “brighter” and more appealing at higher pitch) but challenges vocalists, who have to push to hit the notes.

Finally, movements arose in the 19th and 20th centuries to set a single consistent tuning pitch, known as “concert pitch.”

(The three preceding paragraphs are condensed from another Wiki entry on concert pitch, which fascinated me, and I think would have fascinated my grandfather if he’d had the chance to read it.)

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This all might seem arcane; and indeed, it is possible to enjoy music without thinking much about concert pitch.

Rock bands, especially those without keyboard players, have long been known to tune to non-standard pitches, principally for the comfort of their singers.

My dad, the saxophonist-slash-engineer, points out that variations in concert pitch are more serious business to people who play wind instruments. A clarinetist in an orchestra that changes from 440 Hz to 442 might have to have his or her instrument altered, and a larger change might require the purchase of a new clarinet.

My dad adds: “Somehow a “sharper” sound is preferred by some folks.  If you get used to a sharper tuning, old tunings (like the baroque tunings which I suspect almost anyone can detect as significantly “flatter”) sound somehow more lugubrious and ponderous.”

So variation in concert pitch might be most noticeable to classical musicians who need to adjust to differing standards … and to classical fans who buy two recordings of their favorite piece by different orchestras, play them back-to-back, and notice a curious difference in pace and intonation.

To some classical listeners, concert pitch is more than a trivial interest: It can be a yardstick of whether a reissued recording is faithful to the original performance.

Check out this Stereophile magazine review from earlier this year, in which the reviewer retracts his earlier endorsement of a Cleveland Orchestra recording because the reissue is mastered to 445 Hz instead of 440 — rendering the recording faster and sharper than the real-life performance.

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If you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering whether you can hear any difference in standard pitches. Let’s find out, shall we?

Here’s an A above middle C at 440 Hz …

… at 432 Hz …

… at 442 Hz …

… and at 415 Hz.

If you have trouble hearing the difference — or just want to have some fun — try running two of the pitches at the same time. You should hear audible “beats” between the two pitches.

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I’m not sure my grandpa knew the full, convoluted history of concert pitch.

If he had, he might not have been so struck by the Metropolitan Opera’s adoption of 442 Hz as a “new standard,” because he would have known that 440 Hz was by no means universal.

Although 440 Hz was endorsed as a U.S. standard in the late ’30s and an international standard in 1955, some major orchestras here and abroad continued to use concert pitches as high as 443 Hz — and still do.

Other sources argue for the use of 432 Hz, claiming it is more soothing and attuned to the spheres. (This post is long enough already so I’m not going any deeper into that, but you can Google it if you want.)

And those who play period instruments have adopted different concert pitches for different uses, which go as low as 415 Hz and as high as 470. (The low end of this range is the “baroque” tuning mentioned by my dad a couple hundred words ago.)

In August 1971, Time magazine — my grandpa’s former employer, and one of his favorite news sources — reported on the disagreement in an article titled “The Pitch Game.” I can’t read the whole thing without subscribing, but I’m sure it fascinated him, and I’m sure it reminded him of the nugget he’d written down in his notebook eight years earlier.

My dad suggests my grandpa took notice of the whole subject not because it affected his listening habits, but for other reasons:

I think he was generally interested in what he considered significant changes to standards in the world.  I think a pitch change might have been in the same ballpark as leaving the gold standard, replacing the voting machine, changing the size or makeup of a baseball, making a penny out of steel instead of copper (1943), these sorts of things.

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 I found this subject interesting as well, 980 words ago.

But now I feel like cleaning out my brain with a little 4′ 33″. That doesn’t require adherence to any particular concert pitch.

Wonder if my grandpa ever heard of John Cage?


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