Music: The Pitch Game

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The house lights dim, the stage brightens, the oboe sounds an A and the orchestra tunes up. To audiences, all A's sound pretty much alike—but not to trained musicians or to those rare individuals with perfect pitch. The Metropolitan Opera orchestra, for example, tunes up to an A that vibrates at 440 cycles per second—theoretically, the international pitch standard. In Pittsburgh, though, the symphony raises the pitch to 442, half a notch higher than the New York Philharmonic's 441.5. In Berlin, the Radio Symphony Orchestra soars to 446, enough to make singers' eyes pop on a top note. If the strain proves too great, they could take refuge in Moscow, where orchestras revel in a plushy, warm tone achieved by a larynx-relaxing 435 cycles.

Now somebody is trying to organize things. A committee of the Council of Europe, meeting in Strasbourg, has just recommended to its 17 member nations that the world's musicians get in tune with each other by adopting the international pitch standard. This is obviously not the council's most momentous problem, but if harmony is finally achieved, it may put an end to discordant, bitonal performances of complex works like Richard Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra. When the Vienna Philharmonic played the Strauss tone poem in London a few years ago, the orchestra built up to a tremendous climax, hit a C-major chord and waited for the organ to enter. Enter it did: a half tone flat, since it was tuned to British rather than Viennese pitch.

Out of the Realm. Standardizing pitch would have other benefits. Violinists would no longer have to worry about strings snapping under increased tensions. Singers would no longer be shocked by discovering, as they walk onto a strange stage, that their parts have been transposed right out of the realm of possibility. Piano manufacturers would have fewer problems with shattered warranties. "On a grand piano, the pull on all strings creates a force of about 20 tons," says Dr. Daniel W. Martin, chief engineer of the Baldwin Piano & Organ Co. "Raising the pitch ten cycles adds another ton of pull. It could crack the metal frame or snap the strings."

The concept of a standard pitch dates only from the mid-19th century. Ancient European organs show that the note A has varied from a low of 370 cycles to a high of about 567, a difference of almost a fifth, or the distance from F to C on a piano. Mozart's tuning fork shows he tuned his piano to 422, which means that the Concerto No. 21 in C (K. 467) is really a concerto in C sharp (or possibly D flat). As for Bach's B Minor Mass, it may have been written in B minor, but it is anybody's guess as to how many cycles per second were vibrating in Bach's B.

Variations and Vibrations. A desperate French commission that included Composers Jacques Halevy, Hector Berlioz and Giacomo Meyerbeer tried to sort things out in 1858 by decreeing that 435 should be the future standard. It did not work. Soon there was French pitch, English pitch, English church pitch, military pitch and virtually as many varia- tions in between as there were vibrations to choose from. In 1939 the British Standard Institution settled on 440 cycles for the A, but this supposedly international standard is widely ignored.

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