B flat

For reasons that remain mostly mysterious, the note we call B flat does the oddest things. Here are a few of them.

B Flats and Alligators

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 live alligator named Oscar. Oscar, who’d been in the museum on 81st Street, suddenly began to bellow. Naturally, with so many scientists in residence, an experiment was quickly devised to see how to get Oscar to bellow again. Various musicians — string, percussive and brass — were brought to Oscar to play various notes. It turned out the culprit was B flat, one octave below middle C.

The experiment was described back in the 1940s.

I repeated the experiment on an ABC News broadcast in the 1990s, playing a B flat to a collection of gators at a roadside attraction in Florida and recording their bellows.

Why B flat?

You’d have to ask an alligator.

B Flat and Glenway Fripp the Piano Tuner

Jay Alison (of This I Believe fame) and radio correspondent Viki Merrick live in Massachusetts and help run public radio stations on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. In their capacities as managers-poets-reporters in residence, they regularly devise short promotional “moments” featuring local personalities.

One of their promos described a trip that Glenway Fripp took up a staircase.

Mr. Fripp, a piano tuner by trade, was humming in B flat while climbing the stairs at his dad’s office building, when he noticed that his hum had somehow escaped him and was hanging, resonating without him, on the staircase landing. He couldn’t quite explain what was happening; only that his hum (and it was definitely his hum, no one else’s) had gone off without him.

If you listen to the broadcast, you can hear this for yourself. Viki Merrick recorded it. Glenway has no idea why B flat had this particular property on that particular staircase. He suspects that the walls were porous and may even contain cavities that are very B-flat friendly. That’s all he knows. But the truth is, he doesn’t have an explanation.

B Flat and Black Holes

This one’s a bit of a stretch, but here’s what happened.

In September 2003, astronomers at NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory found what can be described as sound waves emanating from a supermassive black hole. The black hole can be seen in the Perseus cluster of galaxies located 250 million light years from Earth.

Andrew Fabian of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England, analyzed the waves and announced, “We have detected their sound….” The sound he found (which is really the waves passing through gas near the black hole) translate to the note B flat.

But this is not a B flat you or I can hear. It is 57 octaves below middle C. A piano, by comparison, contains only seven octaves. So if a black hole hums, it hums at a frequency a million billion times lower than you can hear.

A Song in B Flat

While you may not be able to hear a black hole humming, this story is, to a considerable extent, sung.

The vocalist (who is also the lyricist, and a journalist) is Josh Kurz of Los Angeles. His partner this time out is Shane Winter, who composed the song “Have You Heard About B Flat?” — which wasn’t easy, since he decided to hang with B flat for as long and as often as possible.

Josh Kurz’s other work can be found at the Web site he shares with Adam Raitano of Brooklyn, N.Y.


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