Naming musical notes

German not only has a few extra letters of the alphabet (ä, ö, ü, Ä, Ö, Ü and ß), it also has different names for musical notes as well.

This was something I first discovered many years ago whilst visiting a school in Willich near Düsseldorf, when spotted something labelled as “H” in the music room.

It came as a shock, as I had always assumed that any country using the standard 5-stave notation also called the notes by the letters A to G as well.  But Germany does not, it uses A to H.

My question back then was “what is H?”  And the answer is quite simple really: it’s B.

Keyboard with finger on 'B' (or 'H')

But in the German system this is also a ‘B’ – and this is the B flat.

Other notes have their own names as well.  When referring to a sharp, the note below has an ‘is’ attached to it.  F sharp (F#) is therefore ‘Fis’, C sharp (C#) is ‘Cis’.

For flats, an ‘es’ is added to the note above, so D flat (Db) is ‘Des’, although E flat (Eb) becomes ‘Es’ and A flat (Ab) becomes ‘As’.

But why is ‘H’ so an exception?  Well, according to Wikipedia this is a result of changes made to musical notation in the 12th Century.  At this time there were two ways to write a note on the stave, with the angle of the lines denoting a note to be played at the normal pitch or a half-pitch deeper.

These two forms of writing a note later evolved into the sharp and flat signs that we know today, but in the case of B something special happened.  The sign of B-flat looked so much like a ‘b’ that it was written simply as a single letter.  With the lines slanting in the other direction, for a normal ‘B’, the note resembled an ‘H’ and when printed music arrived it continued to be referred to as such.

Hence a scale in C major contains the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-H-C’, a scale in F major contains F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F’.

Another musical difference is that whilst it may be common in English speaking countries to tune an instrument to “middle C”, German orchestras prefer to use “Kammerton A”  which is exactly 440Hz and the A above middle C.

In Austria, you can even tune an instrument using your telephone.  To do this, you dial special telephone number and you can hear a 440Hz tone.  This even works from outside the country, so if you want to try it for yourself, dial +43 1 1507 – but remember that international call rates will apply, so a tuning fork might be cheaper!

Our new flat: 1. The Decision

For the past few weeks I have been so busy, that I’ve hardly had time to write in any of my blogs, and AllThingsGerman seems to have suffered particularly badly – with the exception of the podcasts.

I did report on the reason for this in a recent podcast: we have moved into a new flat.

The story begins back in April when I spotted a “for sale” sign on a 4-room flat this is, sorry was, visible from our balcony.  We had several reasons for wanting to move.  The main ones were (a) size and (b) financial.

Size: until last week we lived in a three-room flat, ie. two bedrooms and a living room (the kitchen and the bathroom do not count in the ‘official’ number of rooms).  This meant that my office was effectively a corner of the living room.  Well, at least that’s how it started out.  By the time we moved it was more like two corners of the living room and a good part of one of the walls, as well as a corner of the bedroom and part of the cellar.

We had been looking for a solution to this situation for some time, but other than re-arranging the flat we did not have that many options available as I was reluctant to rent an office anywhere else.  I often work in the evenings when our daughter is in bed, which would make an office in another building inpracticable.  Having a separate office in our own flat definitely sounded like a good idea.

Financial: we had been renting our previous flat for five years, and although this was at a fair price, we did at some stage want to have something that we owned.  After all, we worked out that for the amount we were paying in rent we could afford to pay a mortgage instead.  If we stayed where we were, we would have paid several thousands of Euros to our landlord, and still not have anything to call our own at the end of it.

So we made an appointment to see the flat that was for sale.  Unfortunately by the time we got to visit it, it was a good as sold, but the estate agent told as about another – almost identical – flat in a building a couple of streets away and we went to look at it.

As it turned out, the second flat was maybe a little further away (I had rather fancied moving between the flats by carrying everthing across the car park, now it was a drive around the corner instead 🙂 ) but it was in a better state.  All the rooms had been redecorated and the bathrooms had been completely renewed.  Only the kitchen needed replacing.

Most importantly of all, it had a room that could be used as an office, situated away from the bedrooms so that late-night work would not disturb anyone.

It did not take long for us to make up our mind.  It was time to call the bank.

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