Saturday, December 18, 2010

The String To Which Our World Is Tuned

At noon today in Oklahoma City the warning siren which signals a tornado will sound-it is a test that is ritualized every Saturday of the year.
The tone which signals the impending whirlwinds is very tense, and thus appropriate. It is the same tone, however, which the first violinist, the concertmaster, of every Symphony Orchestra on earth plays before the concert begins, and to which each and every member then tunes. It is the international concert pitch-and the a above middle c vibrates to 440 - Without getting into the science and technical terminology, let me just say this is a pitch tuned up to tension. All the earth's music vibrates to this tone-every genre.
It has not always been so.
Bach did not tune to this pitch.
Mozart did not tune to this pitch.
Beethoven and Schubert did not tune to this pitch.
Handel did not tune to this pitch.
The music of all these composers was pitched at a pitch lacking the tight pull of today's tension.
And yet we play their music "tuned up to tension."
It doesn't make sense - & yet if you were to attempt to discuss this you would be seen as tilting at windmills.
Exactly when was this world tuned up to the insanity of such tension? I'll tell you-It became official in 1939.
Let me know your thoughts.
p.s. I tune my piano to a=415


  1. So very true my friend. I recall that, when I once became very ill several years ago, of telling my Dad that "symphonies seem to be getting more tense over the years."
    I'd say it's better to be the canary in the mine, where, at least I know the canary is correct.

  2. I've grown up with A=440. Interesting to think about the alternatives. If A can be redefined, what else can I redefine?

  3. Wow, Wayne. I had never thought about this before and I have to say, it's a bit mind boggling to me but also very reassuring. I've been wanting to buck this instinct towards tension for quite some time now but I see that you have already found the desire and/or need to do so. How wonderful!

    Thank you for sharing this with us...I will hear those A's in a totally different way now.

    PS - I have to take another listen to some of your recordings...were any on youtube done on your A-415 piano? I would love to hear them.

  4. Thank you Erica!
    There are orchestras now tuning to 442 and above-for "brightness". But it is not so much a matter of pitch as it is of tension - stretch those strings a little tighter not only will they sound at a higher pitch, they will soon reach the point where they break, snap. 440 already has us living in a very tense world. Do we really need more tension?
    Thanks for the comment.
    All the recordings on You Tube with the art of SER are from my own MasonHamlin piano tuned to 415 except for the Carnegie Hall improvisations, recorded on one of their Steinways at the prevailing 440 pitch.

  5. Becky: When you say " If A can be redefined, what else can I redefine?" you bring the conversation into a larger arena of discussion. It's a great question. As to our "A" it has been in a fluid wash of change throughout history-1939 saw the now international standard pitch 440 becoming "law" for the music world. But one should bear in mind-It is not a "natural law" and it can (& might) be redefined again in the future.

  6. David Weller -
    Your ear/psyche must have been finely tuned to some inner standard when you observed, as you say ""symphonies seem to be getting more tense over the years." I just learned that The Philadelphia Orchestra is turning not to a=440.

  7. surely though the instrument needs to have been designed to be tuned at 415...your piano (a C20th one? )accepts this lower pitch? I did have an 1838 piano once which preferred 415...I have some instruments I keep at 415 and some which I find robust enough to tune up or down as need be. I have recorders at both pitches and sing at both as well! I do think singing baroque at lower pitch is nicer!

  8. I'm reading about Bowen Family Systems THeory

    Learning how quickly people can become anxious, and how long it takes to become calm.

    WHen anxious, it's harder to think clearly. Herd instinct kicks in.

    You're doing a great service for the world through your music, Wayne. Keep up the good work!

  9. Soxy! What a fascinating array of skills you ply! Yes, my piano is a Mason and Hamlin concert grand and has been tuned to A415 for decades. I'll send you a link to how it sounds with Bach and Mozart (yes, I even record Chopin at 415) I have tuned myself to that pitch, and prefer it. I go to sleep in that pitch and waken in that pitch. It appeals to me as so very sane, without the hysteria of tightly wound tension.

  10. Marcia - When you say this: "Learning how quickly people can become anxious, and how long it takes to become calm.
    WHen anxious, it's harder to think clearly. Herd instinct kicks in." you induce vibrant activity in my brainbox! Thanks for the comment and for keeping this conversation going!

  11. Fascinating. I woke up asking myself this question, goggled it, and here you are. WOw, I am skipping the c-c-coffee-ee this m-morninrg, as I have gthe jjjjitters.