The Perfect Note?

It is an intriguing idea that we have a natural affinity for certain sounds, shapes and forms.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the attraction that the pitch of B-flat major has for humans. For years musicians and some scientists have speculated that this single note shows up as the home key in a lot music, as well as other non-musical parts of our lives.  Is B-flat our homing frequency?  What accounts for all of the major pieces of music written in this key?  Is it an accident that a black hole in deep space seems to “sing” that note, albeit some 50-plus octaves below the pitch we know as middle C? Is it more than a coincidence  that our electrical system “hums” at 60 hz (cycles per second), close to the audible lower octave B-flat? And should we make anything out of the anecdotal evidence offered by some that human structures seem to sustain sound especially well in the neighborhood of the same pitch, as in the example below?

A# / Bb 466.16 Hz Tone For Instrument Tuning

A# / Bb 466.16 Hz tone for instrument tuning 8 seconds on 2 seconds off x6 My playlist with the twelve notes of the fourth chromatic octave: For an A 440 Hz (standard) tone, see: A sharp B flat 466 466.16 467 Hz hertz Music Pitch Frequency Musical Note Notes Sound Audio Tone Tune Tuning Instrument Tuner Concert Clarinet Soprano Saxophone Tenor Saxophone Trumpet Cornet Baritone Euphonium Bass

Actor Ethan Hawke’s interesting documentary Seymour: an Introduction (2014) includes a passionate pianist who is impressed by how many  composers were drawn to producing  works in the key of B-flat major, including concertos and symphonies by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Schumann, Prokofiev and others. Is it the perfect note: a kind of passkey that resonates with something inside?

A slightly broader question was asked by the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in the first of his still fascinating Norton Lectures given at Harvard in the early 70s (available on YouTube). He argued that the idea in linguistics of an “innate grammatical competence” that allows even young children to form sentences may have its counterpart in how we are  “tuned” to the intervals that make up tonal music. The idea is that we already “know” a harmonic series like a triad of C, G and E without having to learn it.  Any set of notes built off the overtones of a low first note always sounds “right.”  We expect a simple musical work to find its way along what music theorists call the “circle of fifths” within a chromatic or diatonic scale.

To be sure, a more specific theory asserting a special affinity for a single absolute pitch has its problems.  After all, Mozart’s B-flat was lower than ours. In his time the nearby tuning note of A  was more likely to be around 420 hz rather than the more standardized 440 hz today.  But it is an intriguing idea that we may have a natural synchronicity to natural sounds, shapes and forms.  Think of how easily we associate music composed in a minor key as darker and more solemn.  When music “resolves” in a major interval it tends to perk us up.  We don’t have to be trained to notice the effect. Most of us are born into this world discovering that we have an unquenchable thirst to hear modulations of sound that build out from (and occasionally violate) music’s fixed chromatic intervals.

The motive to confirm a ‘hard-wired’ need is naturally interesting, leaving us at the doorstep of a theory of forms. Consider the rhyme that falls at the end of a second line of a poem; or the AABA structure of a pop song that satisfies our expectations by delivering the “B” refrain; or the third act resolution of conflict that developed and festered in Act II.  All are narrative forms that have become routine templates for thought. They sink their claws into us (or were they already there?) and can’t easily be set  aside, providing the twin pleasures of predictability and surprise.

It would might take some magical thinking to identify a form that is as controlling on us as something like the inviolate laws of physics. Even so, the question of identifying perfect resonances–responses tuned to our essences as humans–is intriguing.  We are usually better at naming specific human processes than single universals that may function as reliable North Stars. To be sure, religion fills this need for many. But it’s exciting to consider the idea of a physical property that exerts an enigmatic and irresistible pull.  If we need a visual reference, perhaps form as “deep structure” is perhaps like the inscrutable black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968). The possibility that anything can be the organizing principle that animates the rest of our world is always exciting.

Still from 2001: a Space Odyssey                                                                                        YouTube

Broadcasters and Receivers


 For any broadcaster, “dead air” is an embarrassing professional lapse. And so the goal is always to monopolize the channel. 

Modern electronic media began nearly 100 years ago with two clear reference points.  If you were issued a license, you could be a broadcaster. Your transmitter sent content along a channel in the region’s electromagnetic spectrum reserved exclusively for the station’s use. This is still true for local entities such as WABC-TV in New York or Philadelphia’s WXPN radio.  Commercial broadcasting began in the 1920s when Americans were eager to consume content sent into the “ether.” That pattern put us on a long path toward becoming involuntary spectators to the performances of others.

I keep coming back to this basic idea when I think of humans and their preferred communication styles.  Some—let’s say too many—prefer to be broadcasters. They are comfortable devising content they believe others need to hear.  They are “on” continuously and mostly without pause.  The disinhibitions of alcohol can make the pattern even worst. Others of us are receivers, often by choice, and sometimes because broadcasters rarely offer breaks that would allow sufficient time for the functions to reverse. You know the feeling if you are at a party and a 50,000-watt broadcaster crosses your path. They may see themselves as having a clear channel that must never go silent. For any broadcaster, “dead air” is an embarrassing professional lapse.

I confess to sometimes being a broadcaster.  In education it’s called lecturing. I am probably too certain that I have important things to say. But I understand that a good teacher must also hone their skill as a receiver. Unless you are accompanied by a 10-piece band and a juggler, one-way communication offers diminishing returns. Broadcasters frequently misread the patience of others as signs of their brilliance. They flourish from the goodwill of conscientious listeners.  Such listening is all the more remarkable since those doing it get few rewards for the courtesy of their interest.

Maybe you have escaped the experience so far, but the news that you will be spending time with a group of compulsive talkers may mean that the broadcasters among them will have already programmed the entire evening. Your efforts to jam their channel can easily fail, forcing a decision about how Soviet you want to be in disrupting their dominance.

There just aren’t many ways to silence these full-time transmitters, let alone turn them into effective receivers. The natural informality of conversation especially makes it hard to preserve an adjacent channel for weaker but worthwhile signals coming from others. Even so, there are at least a few desperate gambits that may momentarily knock a broadcaster off the air:

-Express amazement that they managed to arrive on two flat tires.

-Mention the contagious disease you can’t seem to kick.

-If it is their affair, ask them if the dining room chandelier always emits sparks and smoke when it is on.

-Tell the broadcaster his hair is on fire.