Hearing History

Tuning Fork, Image Courtesy of the Winterthur Museum

As previously discussed on Material Matters, studying the music of the past poses a unique set of challenges. Despite no shortage of music-related objects left behind, a full understanding of these objects is entwined with the ephemeral nature of music, leaving scholarship in a liminal position between the material and intangible. While musical instruments and sheet music may survive, providing important answers to questions about instrument construction or printing technology, studying their mere existence does not result in a complete picture. For these objects, their function is the sound they produce – but is there a way to truly hear music of the past?

Concert for Flute, Adolph Menzel, Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A modern musician can bring the notes on a page of sheet music back to life, and a historic instrument can sometimes be outfitted for modern usage – but these are not truly the same sounds. We’ve all heard the illustrious sound of a Stradivarius violin – but what we hear today is a product of nineteenth century modifications on an eighteenth century instrument, modern strings and a modern bow. Elements of the instrument have remained the same – but alterations have fundamentally changed the sound that is produced. This past fall, a scholar of musical clocks told me that they were the only objects that produced the same exact music as one that was heard in the eighteenth century. A curious thought indeed, since the mechanism of a musical clock is generally much more stable than a wooden string instrument.

Internal Mechanism of a Musical Clock, Image Courtesy of the Internet Craftsmanship Museum

However, I have discovered another: the tuning fork. While certainly less complicated than a musical clock, the tuning fork is comprised of steel and made to inherently produce a certain pitch when struck. Invented by Englishman John Shore in the early eighteenth century, the object simplified the process of tuning by providing a singular pitch for an instrumental or vocal ensemble to refer to. On a larger scale, the tuning fork encapsulates a movement towards the standardization of pitch, a major shift in the world of Western music. While modern standards generally set pitch at A = 440 vibrations per second, there used to be no such benchmark. Communities across the Western world would play music at different pitches, some as high as A = 465, or as low as A = 392.

Tuning fork belonging to George Frideric Handel, Image Courtesy of the Royal Society of Medicine

Shore’s early tuning forks, one of which he gifted to George Frideric Handel, ring in at 423.5 vibrations per second. While there were still slight variations in the tuning forks themselves, they assisted in the standardization of pitch across wide geographic areas, uniting music-making across the Western world. With this humble tool, we can hear the exact pitch of the past that helped tune an instrument, unite an ensemble, and contribute to a unique soundscape.

By Allie Cade, WPAMC Class of 2018

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