Ch-Ch-Changes

I have taken notice of my recent fit of posting music videos and  realized that getting not only some of the bone chips off my cranial nerves, but also more of the residue of heavy metal from my mercury fillings out of my inner ear makes music much more enjoyable. There are times when sound has been sufficiently painful that  talking is unpleasant, never mind comprehending what I am hearing, while music has often been flat-out agonizing .

I have also found myself wondering recently how much of  my short circuiting in music lessons was due to my hypersensitive and precise ear. I really did not realize how picky I was until I started wandering about on you-tube. It is great in that I can find all sorts of obscure music I remember liking. It also gives me a basis for comparison. I discovered that genres of music are irrelevant, I have very eclectic taste, but I do like very specific musicians.  And while those musicians are not necessarily popular, they are recognized by their peers as being exceptional.

I appreciate their artistry, understanding it is a whole other question. I don’t learn by rote very well, so it shouldn’t surprise me that music lessons confused me in much the same way I was flummoxed by geometry, given that the Greeks thought they were aspects of the same thing (click here for that post). What I was hearing and what people were saying was not matching up for me, so it was a great relief to find out things like the frequency of A is not an absolute but really does vary as much as my ear has always claimed. There are at least three different standard frequencies for A in western music that I have seen:

  • A=432 is the ‘natural’ note for the Pythagorean Greeks
  • A=435 European
  • A=440 American

My first question , of course , is WHY?

It turns out that every culture that has a distinct musical tradition recognizes and tracks  two different qualities in sound  in different ways (click here for a great synopsis).  One quality is the actual frequency of a note, the other is the patterns of  relationship between those frequencies. These patterns include:

  • Greek tetrachord, 4 notes
  • pentatonic scale fixed 5 notes
  • pentatonic sliding- first note and its perfect fifth are fixed, the other three vary depending on what effect you want
  • octave which is 7, 8, or 9 notes depending on what you are intending.
  • chromatic-12
  • Arab- 16
  • Hindu 22  Shruti or degrees
  • Persian 24

In Western music the octave is usually taught as 8 notes but it can be:

  • One of seven major scales with seven tones that are whole and half tones which are the white keys on the piano or
  • the melodic minor scale that has two forms, an ascending and descending for a total of 9 notes or
  • harmonic minor scale that fixes the frequencies of  the above minor scales which are the black keys on the piano

It turns out that a remarkable number of notes are not fixed frequencies in practice. String, wind, and even percussion instruments as well as our own voice are all pretty adaptable in terms of frequency. I think the correct musical term is modulate. You can slide  up and down a bit to get the effect you want with most instruments and in most scales. Changing the frequency of A had to do with the invention of the even-tempered clavicle or the piano as in the piano each note is fixed. You hit a key, you get a note, a specific frequency.

Once you start fixing the frequencies of the notes for the piano, you end up having to adjust all the notes because the patterns of relationship and the actual frequencies of the notes are two very different qualities and they do not correspond exactly. This has had some peculiar and profound influences on the human psyche. One is the age-old pursuit of an infinite number of numerical puzzles which of themselves are enough to give birth to the field of mathematics. The other is the rather dubious religious stance that since the patterns and frequencies don’t match up exactly, somehow our existence and our world is inherently flawed and lesser. A heaven that is eternally static with no conundrums sounds hellish to me, but for a great many people, that is their bias.

Another factor is that , in spite of western music and the piano specifically trying to fix each note, what musicians actually want in their instruments is resonance. When you produce one frequency, a good instrument responds with a whole array of harmonics, or associated frequencies. Really great instruments sing practically of their own accord, as I experienced  in a room full of bass instruments in a repair shop. Pluck one string once on one bass, and every bass in the room began to hum. Especially with the piano, if the frequencies are not right, the instrument ends up with dead spots that don’t resonate.  When I understood that I realized why I hated mediocre and out of tune pianos.

This standardized music that is slightly off the ‘natural’ scale has been problematic for me because I grew up with my father and godfather singing their ceremonial songs in the pueblo, while it was my Rosicrucian grandfather whose voice called me back and healed my body after my devastating injuries from my mother’s car accident. My childhood entrainment was to non-western music that had the intent and capacity of making a difference and so resonated with the natural world. So when I was talking to a musician friend about the Weeping Camel, the story of a she-camel that rejected her baby until her people played the right songs for her:

I was completely taken aback at first when he said he never knew that music could be so practical.  Then I realized that that was my problem in a nutshell. I expected a practical application for music in a cultural context that denied that possibility. Music has become an intellectual game and entertainment. One could say that in as much as the priority has become for music that resonates within an individual instrument instead of harmonizing with its environment, music itself has become individualized, isolated, and egocentric.  The changing in frequency of notes like A and intent of music both coincide with the industrial revolution and the resulting incredible devastation of our ecosystem. I am not sure how one would claim a direct effect , but the synchronicity is certainly intriguing.

click for the beginning or for the next

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3 thoughts on “Ch-Ch-Changes

  1. Period instrument performers also use A=415 and even, particularly for French baroque music, A=392. But any standard for A is an arbitrary modern invention. In times when most people didn’t travel outside the area they were born in, the local church organ dictated A and any other instruments had to match it, regardless that in the next town over, their A might be wildly different. For those intrepid professional musicians who did travel it was a real problem.

    I’ve played at 415 so much that it’s the pitch that feels like home to me now.

    • I’ve been contemplating the idea that particular geographical locations resonate with with particular sounds and people/cultures/races … standardized time and sound is such a recent experience for us humans!

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