Thursday, December 11, 2003

D. Deutsch:

In the late nineteen eighties I came across the U.S.-Soviet Youth Orchestra in Oberlin, Ohio. In one of those gestures of cold-war d├ętente, a mixed group of students was touring both countries, and playing well-known pieces by each-other's composers.

One of the tid-bits I learned while talking to them was that they had a fair bit of adjusting to do before they could play music together. Not only the expected language and cultural adjustments, but musical ones, too. It turns out that Middle-C can be different depending on where you are. Over here, Middle-C is defined as 261.63 Hz. Over there, Middle-C is 258.65 Hz.

The difference had come about because Middle-C is actually completely arbitrary. In fact, international agreement on what frequency to use to pin the western twelve tone equal temperament chromatic scale was only reached in 1939. Sure enough, the ever-present International Standards Organisation has a standard for it (ISO 16:1975, note that it is based on A in the treble stave as 440 Hz).

An earlier French law in 1859 had attempted this standardization with A at 435 Hz - the diapason normale - which was widely used until the 1939 ISO standard. This was the source of the Russian tuning.

In the end, the orchestra decided to use the U.S. tuning of Middle-C while over here, and the older diapason normale tuning while playing in the USSR. Seems obvious, but apparently it took an awful lot of arguing, diplomatic intervention, and several bottles of vodka to get to that point.

My question here is - how does somebody who has retained absolute pitch deal with this difference?

(And I say retained on purpose, because there's good evidence that we are all born with it. Only about 1 person in 10,000 in the West retains absolute pitch. Most of us lose it because there is no linguistic meaning embedded in pitch. Except in many tonal Asian languages. Sub-question: do more people who grew up hearing a tonal language have perfect pitch than people who grew up in an atonal household? Probably. Speakers of Vietnamese and Mandarin seem to be able to reproduce tones much more accurately than Westerners.)

For someone coming from a diapason-normale-tuned musical background who has absolute pitch, it must be very disorienting to have to readjust. No wonder they fought so hard against the Americans.