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Day 11 | Recorder31

Day 11 | Recorder31

Today we’re taking a look at baroque pitch, what it is as well as a bit of history.  

Pitch is determined by the frequency of vibrations and when we talk about music pitch we use the A above middle C as a reference point. Modern pitch as standard is at a=440Hz, although  in recent times it has risen slightly and many pianos are now tuned at a=442Hz or slightly higher. There are many possible reasons for this, but one reason is that music sounds slightly brighter a couple of Hertz higher. 

A look at pitch over the past few centuries is very interesting, and really highlights the difference in some ways between the musical scene then and now. If we take a look at the Renaissance and baroque periods, the church played a huge role in the musical scene of a place, to a much greater extent than sacred settings do today. Therefore it was the organ that dictated the pitch for that area, as musicians would be playing with the organ, as it was much easier for string instruments to tune to the organ than them to it! 

We can see evidence of this when we look at original woodwind instruments. Musicians that travelled between places would get to the next town and find that they played at a different pitch and therefore they needed new joints for their woodwind instruments. The original Rottenburgh flute owned by Barthold Kuijken and the one that is most copied by makers today, has 7 different pitched bodies (or corps de rechange). The different pitches for these interchangeable middle joints are around a=398/404/410/415/422/430 and 435Hz. As people started to move about more, pitch started to become more standardised, but it is not until relatively recently that that occurred. In fact, many church organs still don’t play at modern pitch!  

You will no doubt have noticed oboes playing an A for the orchestra to tune to. This started with the move away from sacred settings, as orchestral playing began to evolve to more of how we know it today. A was the best note to choose as every string instrument has an open A string. As woodwind instruments are much more fixed in pitch it made sense for them to give the note, and during the baroque period the oboes tended to double to violin parts and therefore they were the best choice. This has stuck and is now why we see this in modern orchestras! 

So returning to the subject of pitch and baroque pitch. Today baroque pitch is known as a=415Hz, which is a semi-tone below modern pitch. However baroque pitch at a=415Hz and the idea of it being a standardised pitch is a modern invention. As explored above, there were multiple pitches across Europe in the baroque period, with places in modern day Germany and Venice tending to have higher pitches than were found in France and England. However, in modern times it is much more necessary to have standard pitches and therefore during the Early Music movement baroque pitch became a=415Hz. Other pitches used in Early Music playing are high pitch (a=466Hz, a semi-tone above modern pitch) and French baroque pitch (a=392Hz, a tone below modern pitch). Having these pitches related to modern pitches has its advantages, and is most likely why those three pitches were chosen out of the many!  

Some people may ask what the point of having baroque pitch is, or indeed using different pitches. It can be a barrier if you are a woodwind player as it generally means you need another instruments, or a corps de rechange (an middle joint that is at a different pitch, which you can interchange). However, these pitches really do make a difference to the sonority of playing. You can experience this when trying out recorders, as if you compare modern pitch recorders to lower pitch recorders, you are most likely to prefer the lower pitch recorders as they have a different quality. However, it is hard to describe the difference as it isn't tangible, but the nearest description is that lower pitches have a richer tone, whereas higher pitches sound brighter.  

If you are playing solo there is no reason why you should always play a modern pitch instrument. It may be worth exploring lower pitch recorders. Why not browse some baroque pitch soprano and alto recorders! 

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