The Dame’s a Little Pitchy

 

The set consists of thirteen tuning forks that, when struck and placed point-end up, make a wonderfully exact hum. The pitch of this sound sets the tuning standard for an orchestra. Sitting in their case, the forks are surrounded by a number of instruments in the University of Melbourne’s Physics Museum.

capture-tuning-forks

The forks were a gift of Dame Nellie Melba as an international debate over standard measurement of pitch reached its peak. The Dame found herself at the centre of the debate. The diva of all divas, Melba (born in Richmond, 1861 as Helen Porter Melba) was an internationally renowned operatic soprano and, with little argument, the most famous singer of her time. Famous and enough of a diva to have the Savoy Hotel’s head chief, Escoffier no less, produce a dish named the Peach Melba to please the star.

Melba used the ‘French’ or ‘normal’ pitch which gave the note A a value of 435 herz, whereas the British standard was 452 herz. This meant that orchestras across Victoria using different pitches could play the same piece with an entirely different sound. The dispute between pitch preferences also reveals something of Australia’s position at the time. At the turn of the century, Australia remained strongly tied to the British Empire. Yet, individuals like Melba were building connections further afield, reaching across Europe and America.

The Dame, a strong-willed Melbournian, donated £50 in 1907 for the University of Melbourne’s natural philosophy Professor T.R. Lyle to purchase and test a set of tuning forks that would be used to determine a standard pitch in Victoria once and for all. Reprinted by the Argus newspaper, her note to the professor read, “I enclose £50, with the hope that very soon there will be nothing but normal pitch all over Australia”. Manufactured by Max Kohl Chemnitz in Germany, the set is on display in the School of Physics Museum, along with the original 1908 receipt from Berlin merchants Kallaene & Herzberg.

Today’s standard pitch is 440 herz . Something of a half-way solution, orchestras follow the standard, making life less confusing for their musicians.

Still working on a better-quality upload but if you’d like to ‘see’ sound waves, try this experiment:

If you want to explore the Physics Museum more, head here: http://www.ph.unimelb.edu.au/museum/index.php?state=item_view&pm_item=53

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