Have You Heard About B Flat? : Krulwich Wonders... For reasons that remain mostly mysterious, the note we call "B flat" does the oddest things. It aggravates alligators, it lurks in the stairwell of an office building, and it emanates from a supermassive black hole 250 million light years from Earth.
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Have You Heard About B Flat?

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Have You Heard About B Flat?

Have You Heard About B Flat?

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Now here's a puzzle, a musical puzzle that centers on the note B-flat. For some reason, and we still do not know the reason says science correspondent Robert Krulwich, B-flats keep popping up in the most peculiar places.

So here is Mr. Krulwich's report sung appropriately by Robert and his friend, Josh Kurz, in the key of B-flat.

(Soundbite of song, "Have You Heard About B Flat?")

Mr. JOSH KURZ & ROBERT KRULWICH: (Singing) Here you go. Have you heard about B-flat? That special magic frequency that is found around in the world, it abounds. There's something universal about B-flat.

Unidentified Man #1: Start the story.

Mr. KURZ: Yeah, start us off, Robert.

KRULWICH: All right, then. I read that scientists at the American Museum of Natural History once found that if you a B-flat to a male alligator…

Unidentified Man #1: How does one do that?

KRULWICH: With a tuba.

Mr. KURZ: Of course, a tuba.

KRULWICH: Absolutely. So I asked a tuba player, Phil Porter of the Cyprus Lake High School Marching Band in Florida, to play a B flat to a pit of alligators. We did this for ABC television. He did it once.

(Soundbite of Tuba playing)

KRULWICH: Then he did it a second time.

(Soundbite of Tuba playing)

KRULWICH: And indeed, when the alligators heard the B-flat…

(Soundbite of alligators bellowing)

KRULWICH: …they began…

(Soundbite of alligators bellowing)

KRULWICH: …to bellow.

(Soundbite of alligators bellowing)

KRULWICH: Presumably, they mistook the B-flat for an invading alligator.

Mr. KURZ: Just when they hear B-flat?

KRULWICH: That's right, just B-flat. You play male gators a middle C, you play them a G-sharp, they just sit there. But if you are a gator, there is something about a B-flat that makes you want to bite the tuba.

Mr. KURZ: All this talk of B-flat made me want to bite a tuba.

(Soundbite of song, "Have You Heard About B-Flat?")

Mr. KURZ & KRULWICH: (Singing) Have you heard about B - what - flat? A special magic frequency that even the reptiles reviled, and respond to it wild by croaking loudly in B-flat.

Mr. KURZ: All right, Robert, what's next?

KRULWICH: Next is the story of Glenway Fripp, a piano tuner in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. One day, Mr. Fripp was climbing some stairs and was humming roughly in B-flat. When he hit a landing and he noticed that his hum had somehow got away from him. So he wasn't humming, but his hum was still there, bouncing off the walls without him. And Glenway felt, well, this corner seems to be shaped to hold a B-flat. And we said could you do this again?

Mr. GLENWAY FRIPP: So we're going to walk into this corner. I'm going to be singing B-flat. And all of a sudden, my voice will disappear and all you will hear is the resonance, because the resonance is almost equal to my voice. And the note we're searching for is somewhere around this - hmmm.

KRULWICH: Okay, now we're going to put our mic into the corner. Now listen very, very closely.

(Soundbite of echo)

KRULWICH: The corner has just grabbed hold of Mr. Glenway's tone. His B-flat has just escaped.

Mr. FRIPP: You can even hear my voice, right. And that's how I discovered this. You're just talking and you - wow, what is that weirdness jumping out of me from the wall. Oh!

KRULWICH: That weirdness is a B-flat that used to belong to Mr. Fripp, but no more.

Mr. FRIPP: This is Glenway Fripp.

Unidentified Man #1: Thanks, Glenway. Anyway, speaking of resonance, did you know that I can make my digestive tract resonate in the key of B-flat?

Unidentified Group: What?

Mr. KURZ: That sounds difficult. Did you have to practice.

Unidentified Man #1: This is a morning show. I don't see how this is universal.

Mr. KURZ: If we were universal, we'd be talking about the universe. But we're just talking about Earth. Robert, why don't you give us something that's not as earthly that has to do with B-flat.

Unidentified Group: What?

Unidentified Man #1: Yes.

KRULWICH: Very well, far from earth, in 2003, astronomers found a black hole, 250 million light years away, sending waved through a cluster of gas. When they turned those waves into what for us would be a musical note, they found that black holes, in effect, hum. And this black hole was humming in…

Mr. KURZ: Don't say, let me guess…


Mr. KURZ: B-flat.

KRULWICH: Exactly.

Mr. KURZ: I knew it.

KRULWICH: Yes. B flat, 57 octaves below middle C.

Mr. KURZ: Wow, that's low.

KRULWICH: Very low, very low.

Mr. KURZ: Sounds like this - hmmm.

KRULWICH: No. A little bit lower.

(Soundbite of humming)

KRULWICH: No, lower…

Mr. KURZ: Hmm.


Unidentified Man #1: Go lower.

KRULWICH: For whatever reason, that black hole was humming the B-flat - yes, very low - but for 2.5 billion years.

Mr. KURZ: Two-point-five billion years. That's a long time to be humming the same thing over and over again.

(Soundbite of song, "Have You Heard About B-Flat?")

Mr. KURZ & KRULWICH: (Singing) Have you heard of B-flat? That special magic frequency that is found all around. What a sound, it's profound. There's something universal about B-flat. There's something universal about B-flat.

INSKEEP: The correspondent is Robert Krulwich. The music is by Shane Winter. The lyrics and vocals by Josh Kurz.

(Soundbite of credits)

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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