Music Theoried


At some point, some dude came along and determined that a certain frequency of sound would be known as an “A”. This was a completely arbitrary decision of course, there are an infinite amount of tones possible- also for whatever reason it was decided that there were 12 other such “notes” out there. The frequency chosen to be “A” is 440hz; meaning it is the sound that occurs when 440 little vibrations happen per second. Here’s a little about what that means exactly:

Remember when you were a kid and you attached playing cards to your bike so that they clicked on the spokes of the wheel. When you’re moving slowly, you can hear the clicks very well individually. Suppose you are moving slow enough that 3 clicks occur per second- you could almost count them at this speed. This speed is 3hz (3 vibrations per second). But what happens when you speed up? Well, if the card is sturdy enough, the many clicks will start to blend together and seem to sound more as a solid tone- as you accelerate further, that tone will increase in pitch.

Musical theory is based on specific speeds of these vibrations. For instance, the octaves up and down from “A” are conveniently exactly double or half of 440hz. So 220hz is an A, 110hz is an A, 880hz is an A etc. . . . ..This math is necessary, both scientifically for harmonization to occur and audibly (all A’s have a similar perceptive character).

How this harmonization occurs mathematically? For this analogy imagine a couple buskers downtown. Each dude has one drum and is beating a straight beat at an unchanging tempo. Also remember, in theory, these guys could be sped up like the playing card until they sound like solid tones. . ..Now if they were to play the same beat, they would collectively be louder right? This is like playing two A’s together. If one hairy busker started playing twice the speed of the other, the two rythms would still groove well together, with the faster dude hitting his drum both in time with the slow guy while adding a faster hit between each beat. This would be like playing an A and the octave above it. So finally imagine that the one busker is getting quite hairy and sweaty now playing at three times the speed of the other dude; hitting his drum 3 times for every one from the other guy. This wouldn’t be another “A”, but it would still sound cool together- hence harmony occurs. Even if he tires out and goes half his current speed, doing 1&1/2 beats per the other guys one- they will still manage to hit every other slow beat together. Sounding cool in total, still harmonizing, still mathematically common.

If they kept completely different tempos, lets say they couldn’t hear each other, the two rythms would not line up with each other under any sort of mathematical commonality- and then they would sound terrible. This is what happens when harmony does not occur in tones as well; the tempos of the two quick little vibrations do not match up. Remember there are an infinite amount of tones possible, so finding ones that match mathematically could be extremely difficult. Musical theory addressed this problem by fixing the arbitrary point “A” at 440hz and building everything from that foundation. But it could have been 442hz or 436hz or anything similar and the world would have never known the difference.

Track provided by Clam Balls, yes it is a band.

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6 Responses to “Music Theoried”

  1. studiomanifesto Says:

    I’ve never met a hairy busker who could harmonize well.

  2. Jules Cosby Says:

    I don’t have the facts exact here, but the old musical centres of Europe (before they fixed the standard as recent as last century) had different pitches. So a Prussian A might be higher in pitch than, say, an Italian one (again, I don’t have the actual stats here), but lower than a French one. Legitimacy was conferred and arbitrariness avoided based on the power of the burgeoning nations.

    The standardization came with the rise of rationalization and from American industry’s role in creating global institutions in the 20th century. 440 was the choice of American instrument makers, who eventually got the American Standards Association (and later the International Standards) to legitimate that. Anyone who feels like making a VHS/Betamax or an Internet Explorer/Netscape comparison could easily do so here.

    Of course both picking 440 and calling it A were arbitrary in some senses, but I think that we often overuse the word arbitrary or at least understand it as meaning “illegitimate”. Taking arbitrary to mean “anything goes” is a tenuous attitude because it ignores the question of legitimacy. In this case, legitimacy was conferred on pitch, as it was in 19th century Europe and later in 20th century America.

    What your post reminds us of however, admittedly not very groundbreaking in terms of knowledge, is that capitalism is a “rational” system that loves to quantify things, and that America has been the superpower since before our Daddies were in diapers.

  3. remistevens Says:

    You can be fair man, feel free to say that “I” overuse the word ‘arbitrary’. I’m a ‘grassroots’ ‘peacekeeper’ with the best of them when i want to employ contextual additives to help my point.

    The history is very interesting- i had no idea this was another Merican conspiracy. I don’t agree, however, that ‘arbitrary’ was the wrong choice of word here. Sure American instrument makers made the call, and they did lend legitimacy to the decision because of their expertise and their desire to create a new standard, but that does not change the fact that scientifically and perceptively there was no real reason to pick 440. These men could have just as easily made the push for 441.

    If there were a scientific reason, lets say American white Ash reverberates most pleasantly at 440, then that could be used to lend legitimacy to their decision. Problem is, with something infinitely specific like pitch- technology at the time would have been ill-equipped to determine the difference between 440 and 440.00001. And perceptively?! Anyone claiming to hear a difference between these two pitches is full of shit.

    These instrument makers were the sole judges of pitch, they’re decision was ungrounded, unsupported by fact- they were arbiters. Truly, as you’ve said, anything goes, because any pitch could have filled the role of “A”.

    Oh sure, and all those now defunct Prussian A’s and such are still in use somewhere; listen to some non-westernized music, some bendy Hendrix solos or some Remi Stevens vocals.

  4. Jules Cosby Says:

    I remember the Prussian scale you used on “Girls Dig Musicians”. But that was a Mozart cover, was it not?

    I agree with the point about perception. I can tell the difference between notes on a Western scale just because I’ve been trained in that scale for 20+ years. But the difference between 440 and 441? I couldn’t pick it out to save my life, and anyone who claims to be able to is either a robot or full of shit.

    And you’re right, there was more than likely a specific reason why the manufacturers chose it, like the reverberative qualities of the wood, or the fact that the wavelength was prettier than 441. They could have chose something different, but the fact is that they didn’t.

    Which leads back to the arbitrariness point: I’m glad you used the noun arbiter, because that gets to the heart of the matter. History is not an impersonal process that unfolds without anyone’s knowledge or input; it is the collection of human actions and decisions (arbitrations if you will). If you say that everything is arbitrary, fine. But then what? Where do we go from there? At worst, it’s nihilism; at best, it’s a tautology.

    The word arbitrary seems fine when we are talking about “unsupported by fact”. But could someone not have the best reasons for performing an action while seeming quite arbitrary to someone else who perhaps is unaware of the fact or the reasoning behind the action?

    Legitimacy, not appeals to science or perception, is something that can bridge different points of view.

    All this said, maybe we both need to write to the International Standards Organization and learn more about why they picked that specific number. If the reasons seem plausible to you, would you drop the claim of arbitrariness?

  5. remistevens Says:

    Points chosen on an infinitely divisible line are abitrary. Pitch is infinitely divisible. You pick any point on that line, and there will be a pickable point within such close proximity they are completely indiscernible from each other by any human or robot of human design.

    No, this arbitrariness does not need to be applied to everything in existence. The world does not collapse around my suggestion. They made murder illegal for good reasons, and there is no infinitely gradient scale for murder- you either killed someone or not. Pick from 2, not pick from ______- where’s the infinity key?

    Now to get metaphysical on your ass.

    I know you don’t believe it, but a clock at the top of the CN tower moves at a slower rate than a clock at the base- its a proven fact. Time acts differently in different reference frames. Pitch is based on HZ, which is dependent on an accurate measure of ever fluctuating time. Not to mention the doppler effect and air pressure and other such manipulators of pitch that work within your accepted gypsy version of the universe.

    440 is an approximation of 440, pure and simple. It was back in the day, it remains so today. In the real world 440hz does not exist. When they pointed at this imaginary pitch and called it A4, they were reaching into Bob Barker’s green felt sack and pulling out a chip with a number on it. Whatever chip they pulled, they placed in the slot behind them marked 440.

    When they first played an “A” and called it an “A” the decision was arbitrary, someone had to say “well, thats close enough to an actual 440hz tone”. To this day someone needs to be the judge every time an “A” is played. It may be the stoned roadie who tuned your guitar or the nerd who drew up the specs for your speakers. At some point someone had to make the call, be the arbiter of an infinite field of possibilities.

    We have no good reason to have an answer, but we need an answer- so an approximation of 440 will have to suffice. Its as pragmatic as the kilometre, the second, the yard etc. . ..In the real physical world, these measurements are always arbitrary. It can’t be based on anything because there is no real world thing that could act as the decision’s foundation.

    The decision on 440 did not create musical scale and the subsequent mathematics involved. Whatever reason these “academics” gave us would be BS. Cause and effect man, chose a random number, then attach a reason to it. The reason did not create 440 but vice versa.

  6. remistevens Says:

    sorry man, there are a lot of good arguments for the gypsy universe- could be right

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