Published on Thursday, 23 June 2011 18:28
Written by Bruce Gale
"Could concert B flat be the key to the universe? In September 2003, astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory, an orbiting telescope, found what they characterised as sound waves emanating from a supermassive black hole. The “sound” that they discovered - really the waves passing through gas near the black hole - translated to the note B flat, 57 octaves below middle C.
Male alligators also respond to the note. During World War II, the New York Philharmonic was visiting the American Museum of Natural History. During rehearsal, somebody played a note that upset a resident alligator, causing the animal to roar. A series of quick experiments involving the strings, percussion and brass eventually revealed that the offending note was the B flat positioned one octave below middle C. Experiments conducted at a Florida zoo in 2007 confirmed the phenomenon.
In countries like the United States, where electricity is supplied to the national grid at 60 Hz, electric motors hum, whir or buzz at the B flat located two octaves below middle C. Important events in our social lives are also regulated by the tone. The bugle call that announces the opening of horse races is in the key of B flat. So are the standard arrangements of many national anthems, including the Star-Spangled Banner and the Marseillaise.
Keys, like scales, are taught to aspiring musicians almost as if they were mathematical symbols – devoid of any emotion apart from the effort required to memorise them. But are they really like that? We have all heard – and generally agree – that music written in major keys is happy and bright, while music minor keys is generally regarded as sombre or sad.
Historically, specific keys have also been identified with specific moods. B flat major appears to be the key of choice for fanfares and military marches. In the same way, F major is associated with pastoral and often sentimental music, while D major tends to be the preferred key for bright and royal music, particularly when played by the strings. Well known compositions in concert B flat include the march of the soldiers in Gounod's Faust, the march of the children in Carmen, and the trumpet call in Beethoven's Fidelio announcing the arrival of the governor.
It is important here to stress that what I am talking about is B flat major, not B flat minor. Indeed, the latter key appears as the poor cousin in classical music. It is difficult to find many symphonic works written in the key. Tchaikovsky's famous piano concerto No. 1 is nominally in B flat minor, but after a few bars he quickly switches to a theme in D-flat major. Chopin wrote some piano works in B-flat minor, but they were not very uplifting. The slow movement of his sonata in B-flat minor - the so-called Funeral March - is particularly depressing.
Concert B flat is the home key of trumpets, trombones, tenor saxophones and most clarinets. This is the reason wind bands choose to tune to this tone rather than the concert A preferred by symphony orchestras. For brass bands, which deliberately exclude strings and woodwinds, the argument for using B flat as the tuning note is even stronger.
B flat is the note that binds us together, both as musicians and as citizens of the universe. Still not convinced? Check out that black hole. You will find it in the Perseus cluster of galaxies some 250 million light years away.