Lessons on internet governance from the concert hall

The Treaty of Versailles, known for ending WWI, also standardized musical tuning in Article 282, reflecting the challenges of standardization in music. This mirrors today’s need for an international internet treaty to balance local law enforcement and global human rights standards.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

The Treaty of Versailles brought an end to World War I, requiring Germany to disarm, make territorial concessions and accept responsibility for the losses it had caused by paying reparations to the tune of 132 billion marks. Not many people know that among the many obligations that the treaty imposed, hidden all the way down in Article 282, was a provision that required signatory nations to agree to the pitch at which musical instruments in an orchestra needed to be tuned. Why an international document designed primarily to bring post-war Germany to its knees included something as innocuous as the tuning of musical instruments offers a glimpse into the strange history of a concert pitch and the challenges of standardisation in the music industry.

In medieval Europe, the performance of music centred around religion. Instruments of the day were designed to be performed in churches and other places of worship— none more so than pipe organs, whose tremendous size and complexity required them to be built into the very structure of the cathedrals in which they were played. As glorious as a pipe organ sounds, it is a temperamental instrument that is very hard to maintain. As a result, rather than tuning it to a standard [[concert pitch]], makers of musical instruments in those days designed all the other instruments of an orchestra to match the pitch of the pipe organ in the local cathedral. What this meant was that the same music played in different parts of Europe sounded subtly different.

Even after pipe organs ceased to be central to Western music, orchestras around Europe tuned themselves to different frequencies. So much so that over the course of the last 400 years, the ideal reference pitch for musical instruments has fluctuated by as much as 6 semitones. In the 17th century, French performers tuned their instruments a whole tone lower than their German colleagues, and the pitch varied significantly from one town to the next. As a result, music that was written in one place sounded completely different when played somewhere else. More significantly for us, this means that the classical music we listen to today is performed at a pitch that is often very different from what the composer intended. George Fredrik Handel, for example, associated the note A with what our ears understand as the note G, making modern performances of Handel’s music a whole tone higher than what he had intended us to hear.

Over time, as concert halls became bigger and instruments more advanced, the lack of uniformity in pitch raised a number of other practical challenges. In order to be heard in large, cavernous spaces, orchestras were pitched higher and higher to the extent that instruments and voices alike were beginning to get strained. As industrialization began to inflect the manufacture of musical instruments, designing them to meet the varied specifications of different orchestras presented a problem.

In 1859, a French commission established the diapason normal—setting the pitch for the A above middle C at 435 hertz. The Royal Philharmonic Society on the other side of the Channel disagreed, refusing to accept the French suggestion, as it believed the relative warmth of its concert halls required its orchestra to pitch A marginally higher—at 439 hertz. Even though nations of the world recognized the need for uniformity, local interests proved too entrenched to facilitate an agreement. It took the Treaty of Versailles, the most geopolitically significant international agreement of the time, to bring these divergent views into alignment. It eventually led to the International Organization for Standardization establishing the standard concert pitch for the A above middle C as 440 hertz.

As long as music was written and performed locally, no one cared what pitch instruments were tuned for. All that mattered was that all the instruments were in tune with one another. Composers wrote music designed to be heard by their patrons (royal or otherwise), and so they pitched their compositions so that they would sound good when played by the instruments of their local orchestras. But once music began to be performed for listeners farther afield, there arose a distinct need for uniformity.

Conflicts between local interests and international conformity have, over the years, played themselves out across a variety of different arenas. Today, the democratizing power of the internet has smashed past state boundaries, bringing national governments and internet corporations in conflict with each other. The absence of an international treaty that clearly spells out the rules according to which the internet should function has resulted in rules being written and enforced by the global corporations that run the modern internet based on their own particular perspective of what is right and wrong. Letting private corporations interpret the boundaries of liberal ideas such as privacy and freedom of speech results in sub-optimal outcomes. However, in the absence of an alignment between the nations of the world on how local imperatives of law enforcement can be harmonized with international commitments to human rights, we seem to have no other option.

The time has come for a comprehensive international treaty on the use of the internet. Until the countries of the world come together and agree upon the standards to which they must hold themselves, we will all be forced to operate at the lowest common denominator.