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"A" not-as-easy-to-answer-as-it-may-seem question

One of the questions that preoccupy my thoughts is

Why is "A" "A" and how did it come to be so-called?


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Comment by Harvey Burgett on June 16, 2013 at 12:03pm

Tyler, Raymond, Kristofer and Spiros,
Thanks to your help in focussing my thoughts, I have arrived at an answer.
"A" is the third partial.
I will write more fully in the coming days on my blog,
Ciao for now!


Comment by Harvey Burgett on June 14, 2013 at 7:21am

Welcome, Spiros!  

Thank you for joining the discussion and for noting the parentheses surrounding the A.  For the purposes of our thinking, it is not the pitch, but the evolution of the function of what we call "A" that I am musing over.  

(For a little levity on the pitch issue, does anyone want to weigh in on the "Rockefeller Conspiracy?")


Comment by Spiros Makris on June 12, 2013 at 7:37pm

The notes were never standard. There is not standard "A". there have to be at least 4-5 different "A"s used right now in concerts all over the world (ie, 440Hz, 423Hz and so on). So it is impossible to trace a certain "A" back in history.

Logic suggests that if you were to define a "first note" out of the 7 you have standarised, that would the first degree of your most used scale. So a possible explaination is that most usual mode used was the one starting from A and not C (the major, which was the "norm" for many years), which in their mind turns it to the "first note".


Comment by Tyler Hughes on June 9, 2013 at 2:12pm

If you want more information you can read some of the things I had to read for my history of music theory class:

When looking for the history of the origins of music theory and why we call things what we call them, many forget to look at the ancient philosophers, because they were the ones to study and write about music first. There is TONS of writing from the ancient philosophers on the topic of music, all of which are online somewhere. Just takes some digging and reading.

Hell that info I first posted is on wikipedia in more detail. Start there are branch out.  

Comment by Harvey Burgett on June 7, 2013 at 8:38pm

Thanks, Raymond and Tyler.  

Tyler, I wish I had had you for my professor in Music History.  Your explanation of the evolution of the scale is very succinct.  But my question attempts to lead us deeper -- not why the lowest note in the time of Boethius was called "A", but why "A" is called "A".  These musings occupy my thoughts each morning about 2 a.m. with a candle and a cup of hot water.  How did "A" come to be the lowest note of the range in use at the time of Boethius?  Can we perform a reverse search of that note back to its first recognition in prehistory, before scales and alphabets, and then trace it through its evolution to the time of Boethius and continuing to the present (including its important role at the beginning of each orchestral concert....)?  #

Comment by Tyler Hughes on June 7, 2013 at 3:08pm

 The 6th century philosopher Boethius is known to have used the first fifteen letters of the alphabet to signify the notes of the two-octave range that was in use at the time. Though it is not known whether this was his devising or common usage at the time, this is nonetheless called Boethian notation.

Following this, the system of repeating letters A-G in each octave was introduced, these being written as lower case for the second octave (a-g) and double lowercase letters for the third (aa-gg). When the compass of used notes was extended down by one note, to a G, it was given the Greek G (Γ), gamma. (It is from this that the French word for scale, gammeis derived, and the English word gamut, from "Gamma-Ut", the lowest note in Medieval music notation.)

The remaining five notes of the chromatic scale (the black keys on a piano keyboard) were added gradually; the first being B, which was flattened in certain modes to avoid the dissonant tritone interval. This change was not always shown in notation, but when written, B♭ (B-flat) was written as a Latin, round "b", and B♮ (B-natural) a Gothic or "hard-edged" b. These evolved into the modern flat and natural symbols respectively. The sharp symbol arose from a barred b, called the "cancelled b".

In parts of Europe, including Germany, the Czech RepublicPolandHungaryNorway and Finland, the natural symbol transformed into the letter H (possibly for hart, German forhard): in German music notation, H is B♮ (B-natural) and B is B♭ (B-flat). Occasionally, music written in German for international use will use H for B-natural and Bb for B-flat (with a modern-script lowercase b instead of a flat sign). Since a Bes or B♭ in Northern Europe (i.e. a B elsewhere) is both rare and unorthodox (more likely to be expressed as Heses), it is generally clear what this notation means.

In Italian, Portuguese, Greek, French, Russian, Mongolian, Flemish, Romanian, Spanish, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Bulgarian and Turkish notation the notes of scales are given in terms of Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si rather than C-D-E-F-G-A-B. These names follow the original names reputedly given by Guido d'Arezzo, who had taken them from the first syllables of the first six musical phrases of a Gregorian Chant melody Ut queant laxis, which began on the appropriate scale degrees. These became the basis of the solfege system. "Do" later replaced the original "Ut" for ease of singing (most likely from the beginning of Dominus, Lord), though "Ut" is still used in some places. "Si" or "Ti" was added as the seventh degree (from Sancte Johannes, St. John, to whom the hymn is dedicated). The use of 'Si' versus 'Ti' varies regionally.

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