Thursday, 23 February 2017

Musical Pitch

In physics, there is no such pitch as standard “A”. In 17th-century Europe, tunings ranged from about A=374 to A=403. Historical examples exist of instruments, tuning forks, or standards ranging from A=309 to A=455. Although the agreed standard today is A=440, some orchestral groups and chamber groups prefer to tune higher, at A=442 or even A=444 to make a brighter sound. In other words: “correct” pitch is simply what one is used to.

In Bach's music, there are advantages and disadvantages in choice of pitch. Listening to Karl Richter in the sixth Brandenburg concerto, for example, the higher modern pitch lightens the sound of the violas and cellos, that can sound somewhat gruff and murky at A=415 which was the semi-standard pitch at the time the Brandenburgs were written. But again listening to Karl Richter in some Bach cantatas, it is evident that modern pitch often poses serious challenges for sopranos and tenors; musical instruments can accommodate different pitches, where the human voice is a pretty fixed instrument and can struggle in the higher echelons at A=440 where the music envisaged A as being somewhere around 415.

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