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Tuning the World

The Rise of 440 Hertz in Music, Science, and Politics, 1859–1955

Tuning the World tells the unknown story of how the musical pitch A 440 became the global norm.

Now commonly accepted as the point of reference for musicians in the Western world, A 440 hertz only became the standard pitch during an international conference held in 1939. The adoption of this norm was the result of decades of negotiations between countries, involving a diverse group of performers, composers, diplomats, physicists, and sound engineers. Although there is widespread awareness of the variability of musical pitches over time, as attested by the use of lower frequencies to perform early music repertoires, no study has fully explained the invention of our current concert pitch. In this book, Fanny Gribenski draws on a rich variety of previously unexplored archival sources and a unique combination of musicological perspectives, transnational history, and science studies to tell the unknown story of how A 440 became the global norm. Tuning the World demonstrates the aesthetic, scientific, industrial, and political contingencies underlying the construction of one of the most “natural” objects of contemporary musical performance and shows how this century-old effort was ultimately determined by the influence of a few powerful nations.

280 pages | 19 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2023

New Material Histories of Music

History of Science

Music: General Music


“In pursuing the origin story of a single musical note, Gribenski shows us that nothing about the ways we hear, evaluate, or feel about music and musicians is ‘natural’ or ‘universal.’ Her virtuosic interdisciplinary research convincingly reveals how—as the battling forces of metaphysics, historical precedence, mathematics and experimental sciences, instrument construction, composition and repertoire, performers’ health, and aesthetic preference competed for attention—the relentless imperial ambitions of a few nations led to the pitch A’s designation as 440 hertz. Tuning the World is required reading for music scholars and practitioners, historians of science, and diplomats alike.”

Nina Eidsheim, University of California, Los Angeles

Tuning the World is a lovely and profoundly important book. Through rigorous analysis and innovative use of archival materials, Gribenski strikes out on a rich, new path that will lead the way for historians of science, sound studies scholars, and musicologists for years to come.”

Alexandra Hui, Mississippi State University

Tuning the World is an impressive achievement. At once sweeping and fine-grained, it reveals the high stakes of pitch standardization as it helped shape the contemporary soundscape. Gribenski compellingly weaves together pivotal yet overlooked episodes in the history of transatlantic sonic culture and political economy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This book proposes a distinctive and original argument, supported by voluminous historical detail, most or all of which will be new to readers.”

Benjamin Steege, Columbia University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Tuning Forks and Global Politics
1. Tuning the Nation: Aesthetics, Science, Industry, and the French Pitch
2. Sounding the World: Nationalism, Internationalism, and the Travels of the French Pitch
3. Retuning the World: Transatlanticism and the Defeat of the French Pitch
4. “Pitch in Our Time”: International Concord and the Engineering of an Interwar Standard
5. Postwar Aftermath: Confirming an Embattled Standard

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