Music and the Treaty of Versailles
If you go up to a well tuned piano, or an electronic piano, find middle C, and count off 5 white keys to the right, you will arrive at A. (C)-D-E-F-G-A. If you play that note the pitch will be 440 Hertz, that is, 440 vibrations per second, or something very close to it. 440 Hertz means the strings vibrate 440 times per second, making the sound board (in the case of an acoustic piano) vibrate 440 times per second, which in turn is setting up a compression wave in the air of the room that makes 440 little compressions of air travel away per second, enabling you to hear the sound.
The A above middle C has not always sounded at 440 Hertz. I’ve known that for a long time but what I did not know was that the Treaty of Versailles contained, among many other things of course, the first modern attempt to standardize musical pitch. It standardized the A above middle C at 435 Hertz, not 440, but we’ll get back to that. I have to get back to that, because that’s the thing I learned today(ish). I first heard of it in the 99PI podcast (referenced below), hence the Roman Mars reference in the sub-title.
The beginnings of what we now call “Western Music,” that is, the tradition that includes the Music of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky and people like that, has its roots in the Christian church. During the 17th century, when Bach’s predecessors Monteverdi, Purcell and others were active, A was whatever the organ in the church where the music was being played said it was. Musicians brought in their instruments and tuned them to match the organ. There was a good reason for this. You can tune a violin using the little tuning pegs but the pitch of an organ pipe is not easily changed. You have to change the length of the pipe. How are you going to do that? Cut a piece off? There are a few other methods such as tapering the pipe, but you see the problem. Those methods were used during the manufacture of the organ in order to make the notes sound good with each other so you didn’t want to mess with it. Musicians were stuck with whatever the organ was putting down.
When orchestral concerts got to be a thing and there were concert halls another problem arose. Bass notes travel more strongly than trebles. So the lower instruments were blowing everybody out of their seats while the poor flutes and whatnot could hardly be heard. One way out of this dilemma is to bring the pitch of the whole orchestra up a bit. Add to this that one of the ways orchestras distinguished themselves back in the day was to sound brighter and more brilliant by — you guessed it—cranking up the pitch. This approach became a kind of arms race with predictable results. String players are not going to be happy if they keep breaking strings. Strings can be made stronger, but voices are voices. A-list singers are going to be especially unhappy when they can no longer reach the high notes. You can just imagine the scenes: There goes my career. I’m spraying my throat with every weird thing you can imagine and I have always been able to hit high C so what the fuck is going on here, maestro?
You would think some genius would just invent the tuning fork and solve the problem. Well, they tried, but it turns out that in the days before industrial standardization and interchangeable parts, there were tuning forks and there were tuning forks. Sort of like the situation with the organ pipes, as in, it didn’t help. “Standards” varied widely.
Including a pitch standardization in the Treaty of Versailles was, if you ask me, a stroke of pure genius because what could have more clout, more street cred than the Treaty of Versailles? As I mentioned it was standardized at 435 rather than the modern 440, which came about in 1955 when the International Standards Organization pegged it at 440 with ISO 16.
This being the modern era, a bumper crop of conspiracy theories concerning this has grown out of our conspiracy-nutrient rich intellectual soil. One has it that Hitler (naturally) used A440 in order to drive people crazy by blasting martial music pitched thereto over loudspeakers. The kind of sound systems available to Hitler were enough to drive anyone crazy A440 or no, but, you know, Hitler. There is also the notion that A440 is the work of a cabal of international Blue Meanies bent on depriving us of the benefits of A432, which aligns human souls to the Harmony of the Universe and cures every disease known to humanity while totally flushing out your chakras. Those rats! There is also an issue with 433 and 439, those being prime numbers and therefore not good choices. You would think that being an engineer I would understand this but I don’t.
Before I go, let me point out that the difference between 435 Hertz and 440 Hertz is barely perceptible. Note that the second of my links is a tone generator. I opened it and started it going. It defaults to 440 Hertz because they have that kind of stranglehold on the world. I opened again it in another tab and got it going at 435 and I could not honestly say whether I actually heard the difference or just seemed to hear it because I expected to hear it. If you run both tones simultaneously, however, you can tell they are different because you can hear the “beat” that results from the way the sine waves alternately interfere with and complement each other. Being that they are just a little out of phase, the result is a beating sound. Piano tuners use this effect when tuning pianos, but they have to selectively leave some of this effect in, because the pursuit of mathematical perfection will result in some keys sounding great while some sound dreadful. Making the right compromises results in tempered tuning, practiced since Bach’s time, hence The Well-Tempered Clavier. That, however, is a whole different topic.
Mini-Stories: Volume 8 - Page 4 of 4 - 99% Invisible
Concert Pitch by Sean Real Western tuning is the most common musical tuning system we have today and was standardized…
Online Tone Generator
To play a constant tone, click Play or press Space. To change the frequency, drag the slider or press ← → (arrow keys)…
Why Do Orchestras Tune to an A-Note Pitch at 440 Hz? | How To Classical | WQXR
Part of How To Classical. Why does the oboe tune the orchestra? Why does the orchestra sit the way it does? What does…
History of Pitch - The Diapason Normal
Discussion Paper: In the study of historical brass instruments, one always comes upon the fact that some instruments…