Yo-Yo Ma Tunes Down Playing Bach

by Christopher Paul on October 6, 2012

If you’re an Apple fan, you’re probably aware that yesterday, 5 October, was the one year anniversary of Steve Jobs’ death. Apple put up a beautiful tribute video on their website which I recommend you watch. When you do, you’ll hear Yo-Yo Ma playing The Prelude from Bach. Steve and Ma were friends.

One thing about Ma’s rendition of Bach is that it sounds as if he plays the composition in F# instead of G which is what Bach wrote it in.:

As it turns out, Ma plays the first four Bach suites tuning down his cello a full semitone, and there is a specific reason for doing so. In baroque times, instruments like cellos sounded a little different: the musical note A (A440) didn’t have a frequency of 440 Hz, but was more around 415 Hz — something known as the baroque pitch.

Among several modern ensembles, there is a consensus to play baroque music a semitone lower than A440. By tuning down the A to the baroque pitch, the prelude from Bach sounds like F# major, while still playing it in the original G major; this helps achieve a more vibrant, “full” sound that is closer to the original and resonates beautifully.

I could never pick out that kind of detail from his performance but it must get to me somehow because it’s one of my favorite renditions.

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