Boston Typewriter Orchestra
Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Jamming with the Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Boston Typewriter Orchestra
Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Talking typewriters with the members of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra is like asking for a recommendation on a good Gibson guitar from Eric Clapton.

“The portable Remingtons, they have quicker key strikes, with a higher tenor note to them,” Brendan Emmett Quigley, a professional crossword puzzle maker and part-time musician, tells mental_floss. “A Smith-Corona Galaxy 12 has a power space function that makes a nice metallic clang sound.”

“Some don’t make enough noise,” adds member Jeff Breeze.

“Alex [Holman, a fellow member] is a pro at breaking them,” Quigley says. “He’ll hammer actual type on the type bar. There will be metal shears spiraling off onto the desk.”

The potential for protective eyewear is part of the deal for members of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, or BTO, a Boston-based musical group that summons the distinctive chirping noise of old manual typewriters to create catchy rhythms. Like something out of a 1940s montage on secretarial labor, the percussive clicking at one of their shows starts out haphazardly before slipping into sync. Melodies like “The Revolution Will Be Typewritten” and “Entropy Begins at the Office” are hammered out until some of them begin bleeding from their fingertips.

“It’s kind of like our own little fight club,” Brendan says. “You’ll see friends or colleagues and say, ‘You know, you should be part of this.’ And a certain type of person will go, ‘I need to be part of that.’”

Founded in late 2004, the origins of the BTO began in a diner. An artist named Tim Devin was drinking and was also in possession of a portable typewriter, which he began pecking at. When a waitress asked what he was doing, and possibly asking him to stop doing it, Devin replied that she shouldn’t worry: He was the conductor of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra.

Along with some friends, Devin took the joke and began to take it vaguely seriously, rehearsing with old manual typewriters and getting a feel for their musical abilities at private functions before officially debuting at the Art Beat festival in Boston in 2006.

“We played a little theater but wound up filling it up so it was standing room only,” Quigley says. From there, a rotating cast has performed between four and seven shows annually in and around New England, typically breaking up their sets with an irreverent “office” setting that both mocks and sympathizes with corporate culture.

“We’re sort of pulling from the collective unconscious about bad office jobs and office politics,” Alex Holman says. “It’s sort of an inscrutable performance.”

Word of mouth books most gigs for the Orchestra, which has appeared on National Public Radio and opened for musician Amanda Palmer in between gigs at poetry readings, libraries and clubs. (Quigley says they turned down a gig in Mumbai over a disagreement over travel expenses, but it’s not clear whether he’s serious.) “People hear about it and go, ‘We need to have this at our event,’” he says. Sometimes writing groups or typing-related functions invite them without realizing they really don’t write anything on the typewriters.

“We used paper early on but just got gobbeldygook,” Quigley says of the typed result of their jams. “Generally speaking, there’s no sound difference, so we stopped.”

Rehearsals are on Wednesdays. A two-hour practice might be “half beer drinking,” Holman says, and half actual composition. Attendance depends on whether any of the eight current members have other responsibilities. (Among their number: a librarian, an AIDS researcher, and a mortgage broker.) Some tunes have a spoken-word frame, while a few others contain vocals. “It’s a lot of taking a 10 to 15 minute-long groove and cherry-picking parts to make a performable song,” Holman says.

The group will perform next on December 21 at the ONCE Ballroom in Somerville, Massachusetts and is preparing to release their third album and first on vinyl, Termination without Prejudice, Volume 1, after a successful Kickstarter campaign. One new track, "Harold," will feature Holman on "lead roller bar."

“We know we’re a niche thing and we’re happy with that,” Quigley says. “I don’t think any of us could handle overnight success.”

Ralph Gatti, AFP/Getty Images
The 'David Bowie Is' Exhibition Is Coming to Your Smartphone
 Ralph Gatti, AFP/Getty Images
Ralph Gatti, AFP/Getty Images

"David Bowie is," an exhibition dedicated to the life, work, and legacy of the pop icon, concluded its six-year world tour on July 15. If you didn't get a chance to see it in person at its final stop at New York City's Brooklyn Museum, you can still experience the exhibit at home. As engadget reports, the artifacts displayed in the collection will be recreated in virtual and augmented reality.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, the curator of the exhibit, and the David Bowie Archive are collaborating with Sony Music Entertainment and the sound and media studio Planeta on the new project, "David Bowie is Virtual." Like the physical exhibition, the digital experience will integrate visual scenes with the music of David Bowie: 3D scans will bring the musician's costumes and personal items into the virtual sphere, allowing viewers to examine them up close, and possibly in the case of the outfits, try them on.

"These new digital versions of ‘David Bowie is’ will add unprecedented depth and intimacy to the exhibition experience, allowing the viewer to engage with the work of one of the world’s most popular and influential artists as never before," the announcement of the project reads. "Both the visual richness of this show and the visionary nature of Bowie and his art makes this a particularly ideal candidate for a VR/AR adaptation."

"David Bowie is Virtual" will be released for smartphones and all major VR and AR platforms sometimes this fall. Like the museum exhibition, it will come with an admission price, with a portion of the proceeds going toward the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Brooklyn Museum.

[h/t engadget]

Why Do Orchestras Tune to an A Note?

When orchestra members tune their instruments before a performance, it almost always sounds the same. That’s because across the world, most orchestras tune to the same A note, using a standard pitch of 440 hertz.

This is the result of international standards that have been in place since the 19th century, according to WQXR, a classical music radio station in New York City. Currently, standard tuning frequency is set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), an international group that makes recommendations on everything from what safety labels should look like to how big the hole in a pen cap should be. A standard called ISO 16, first recommended in 1955 and confirmed in 1975, “specifies the frequency for the note A in the treble stave and shall be 440 hertz.”

The ISO didn’t pull that frequency out of thin air. During the Industrial Revolution, a rush toward standardization and universality led to multiple international meetings that aimed to bring orchestras all over the world to the same pitch. Standardizing pitch had important ramifications for the international music scene.

Historically, the pitch that orchestras tuned to could differ wildly depending on where the musicians were playing. “In the course of the last 400 years in Europe, the point that has been considered ideal for a reference pitch has fluctuated by some 5 or 6 semitones,” musicologist Bruce Haynes explained in his book, A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of ‘A.’ In the 17th century, a French performer might tune his or her instrument a whole tone lower than their German colleagues. The standards could even change from one town to the next, affecting how music written in one location might sound when played in another.

As a writer for London's The Spectator observed in 1859, “It is well known that when we are performing Handel's music (for example) from the very notes in which he wrote it, we are really performing it nearly a whole tone higher than he intended;—the sound associated in his ear with the note A, being nearly the same sound which, in our ear, is associated with the note G.”

In the 19th century, a commission established by the French government tried to analyze pitch across Europe by looking at the frequencies of the tuning forks musicians used as their reference while tuning their instruments. The commission gathered tuning forks from different cities, finding that most were pitched somewhere around 445 hertz. Over the years, due to bigger concert halls and more advanced instruments, pitch was rising across most orchestras, and instruments and voices were being strained as a result. So the commission recommended lowering the standard to what was known as “the compromise pitch.”

In 1859, the French commission legally established diapason normal, the standard pitch for the A above middle C, at 435 hertz. (The music world would still be debating whether or not pitch had risen too much more than a century later.) Later, 435 hertz became enshrined as a standard elsewhere, too. In 1885, government representatives from Italy, Austria, Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Württemberg met to establish their own international standard, agreeing on 435 hertz. The agreement was eventually written into the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

But not everyone was on board with 435 hertz. The Royal Philharmonic Society in London believed the French pitch standard was pegged to a specific temperature—59°F—and decided to adjust their pitch upward to compensate for their concert halls being warmer than that, settling on 439 hertz. Meanwhile, in 1917, the American Federation of Musicians declared 440 hertz to be the standard pitch in the U.S.

In 1939, the International Standardizing Organization met in London to agree on a standard for concert pitch to be used across the world. A Dutch study of European pitch that year had found that while pitch varied across orchestras and countries, the average of those varied pitches was around 440 hertz. So it made sense for the ISO to choose A 440. Furthermore, radio broadcasters and technicians like the BBC preferred A 440 to the English A 439 because 439 was a prime number and thus harder to reproduce in a laboratory.

World War II delayed the official launch of the 1939 ISO agreement, but the organization issued its A 440 decision in 1955, then again two decades later. A 440 was here to stay. That said, even now, pitch does vary a little depending on the musicians in question. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra notably tunes to 443 hertz rather than the standard 440 hertz, for instance. While A 440 may be the official “concert pitch” across the world, in practice, there is still a little wiggle room.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at


More from mental floss studios