Negotiating the Pitch: For a Diplomatic History of A, at the Crossroads of Politics, Music, Science and Industry
Although commonly adopted as the point of reference for musicians in the Western world, A tuned to 440 hertz only became the standard pitch during an international conference held in London in 1939. The adoption of this norm was the result of decades of international negotiations involving a surprising mix of actors: musicians (performers and composers), instrument builders, physicists, representatives of different state ministries and broadcasting technicians. In 1885, a first international agreement on standard pitch was ratified in Vienna by several European countries, which adopted the “French pitch,” fixed at 435 hertz by France’s government in 1859. In 1939, representatives of the main European nations signed a new treaty in London, agreeing on a higher standard frequency for the note “A” that has since remained the norm for Western musical practices: 440 hertz. Although this decision involved a barely audible increase of the diapason, it revealed the spectacular empowerment of a new set of actors ruling the musical world. By demonstrating the political, technological, scientific and aesthetic contingencies underlying the construction of one of the most “natural” objects of contemporary musical performance, this chapter charts the changing maps of forces in charge of literally tuning the world.