Baroque Tuning

18 Oct

Somebody once observed to the eminent philosopher Wittgenstein how stupid medieval Europeans living before the time of Copernicus must have been that they could have looked at the sky and thought that the sun was circling the earth. Surely a modicum of astronomical good sense would have told them that the reverse was true. Wittgenstein is said to have replied: “I agree. But I wonder what it would have looked like if the sun had been circling the earth?”

James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed

I love James Burke – he created several documentaries that really challenged how I viewed history. In fact, the quote is from The Day the Universe Changed, which explains the history of thought. People did not think the same throughout history – fundamentally different ways of viewing the world – because if someone tells you the sun goes around the earth… well, it looks that way, doesn’t it? Common sense. Let me give you a minor revealation to me that the way things now are not how they were.

James Burke – the man, the myth, the legend.

I have perfect pitch – most days, it’s a curse rather than a blessing – because although it helps with singing, it also means you notice everyone else’s singing is slightly off tune. I know what note the refrigerator is humming. Oi.

So once upon a time, I went to my stepbrother’s house and was jazzed that he had a harpsichord. He owned a church organ company, didn’t have kids, and being a musician… of course he had a harpsichord. This was the most bad-ass thing a young 14-year-old Marcus could imagine; forget the baby grand piano in the corner, this is a #*$%&@ harpsichord!

So I’m playing a minuet that I had memorized that had to have been played on a harpsichord when it was composed (by Nannerl Mozart, Amadeus’ sister). I’m playing it on this cool instrument and I’m disturbed to hear that it played flat. So I go through the piece and look over at my stepbrother and ask, “What’s wrong with the harpsichord?” He smiles and pointing to a strange block at the right end of the keyboard, he says, “Oh, I left it on Baroque tuning, that’s why it sound flat.”

Baroque tuning? I wondered. Yes, it turns out that there was no standardized pitch until 100 years ago. They did what I do to tune my guitar; pick one tune for the low note and make sure all other strings are tuned in relation to that one. To explain, the note A is set at a modern standard of 440 hertz (that’s what the tuning fork does). Although there was no standard back in Mozart’s day, most musicians came to a consensus and said – on average – the tuning of an A note was around 410 hertz. So an A today would have sounded like an A sharp.

The sound of many of the great composers’ work is going to sound flat to modern ears. This is a minor detail, but it made me question how we perceive many of things in the modern world.

Have you ever had a minor revelation like that? Did you know no one thought to standardize piano tuning until 1885? Do you think that’s a good thing? Let me know in the comments below!

One Response to “Baroque Tuning”

  1. SirNolen October 18, 2020 at 11:52 am #

    James Burke also had an AWESOME television show called “Connections” about the history of technology, how each new invention built on others in the past. It was made in 1978, so it’s a bit dated, but still fascinating. Today you can watch most of the episodes on YouTube here:

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