Towards the Proper Pitching of ‘78 rpm’ records…





First, grasp the record firmly in the right hand as shown in Fig. 1, or the other if you’re left-handed, naturally. Then bring the arm smartly forward as fast as possible – see Fig. 2. The instant of release is crucial; in Fig. 3 it is probably illustrated too late. However, on this throw, the disc (two Mozart Overtures recorded on a superb condition German Parlophon circa. 1922) attained the upper right corner of the room in about 0.12 of a second, a creditable performance. Happily it did not break, as we intend to write a web-page about it one day. There has been some Internet discussion on whether the programme material of the disc has any effect on the velocity or trajectory of the throw. We have no definite opinion either way, but point out that the effect, if any such exists, must remain rather trivial in relation to the diameter, thickness and mass of the 78.


But seriously…


Part 2.


What has gone before.


Generally speaking,


(a) In the case of Dance and Jazz records made in the U.S.A. and Britain in the 1920s, we are entitled to assume that they were recorded to the standard pitch A=440 Hz.


(b) Such bands tended to employ a fairly restricted number of keys for their performances.


(c) These few keys have simple and well-founded relationships to each other.


(d) If the record does not begin in one of these ‘plausible’ keys at 78 rpm (or 80 rpm in appropriate cases), most likely the speed needs adjusting…


(e) If the record uses more than one key, this can be a powerful means of confirming our choice of starting key was correct – or otherwise…


In part 1, we analysed two early sides by the Original Dixeland Jazz Band. This page will continue our investigations, and concentrates on more key changes commonly used during the 1920s and early 1930s.


(If you haven’t read the 6,000-odd words of page 1, we should point out that we employ the age-old device of a dialogue between a teacher and pupil. True, many of those 6,000 words were redundant fantasy, and their writing was spread over 10 days and involved the consumption of six or eight bottles of wine, so we’ve cut out the fantasy, and at least some of the wine in order to make this page more succinct.)


So here we go:


Sage: What can you tell me about the different keys used by Jazz and Dance Bands in the 1920s in the U.S.A. and Britain?


Neophyte: Our previous investigations showed that there are only seven major keys that are employed for practically all such Jazz & Dance records in the 1920s, as follows:





B flat

E flat

A flat

D flat

1 sharp

No sharps or flats

1 flat

2 flats

3 flats

4 flats

5 flats


There is also a number of associated minor keys that crop up…


S. Never mind about those for now, thank you; but please tell us what happens when bands change key in order to provide variety in the performance.


N. Right! Well, in the examples we studied on the last page, the key changes always ‘went up the ladder’ shown in the above table. That is, if a piece started in the key of C, and the composer decided to change the key, they would go to F, this being the next most obvious key. If they wanted to change again, they would go up another step, to B flat. Each time you changed key, you added one flat. Or took away one sharp… Like if you started in G (one sharp), you would change to C, which has no sharps or flats…


S. [Interrupting] Thank you! Well done! You have thoroughly absorbed the introduction I gave you to basic key changes! It now remains to push on with the other sorts of key changes that were commonly used in the 1920s and early1930s.


N. What! You mean the ‘ladder’ doesn’t always hold good?


S. Good Heavens, no.


N. But this makes things very difficult again! Anyhow, the tunes we listed in Part 1 all used the ladder.


S. True: but recall that my exact words were: “Many early compositions used this standard progression of keys. Marches and Ragtime pieces especially. And so, also, early Jazz compositions, which of course drew (in large part) from these same sources”. It was just such early pieces that we listed on page 1.


N. Oh dear! It seems that just as we have got something understood and set out nicely all fair and square, along you come and upset everything…


S. [Assumes attitude of mock dismay] Oh, diddums! Come now, at least I haven’t upset anything we learned already! ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ will still be in A flat and D flat just as before; ‘The Entertainer’ will still be in C and F as before, and ‘Beale Street Blues’ will be in B flat and E flat as before… all conforming to the ‘ladder’. But just bear in mind that those are all early compositions.


N. I suppose these new key changes you’re going to talk about will jump about all over the place, have no rhyme or reason to them, and be very hard to learn about?


S. That’s just where you’re wrong. They are very systematic, and follow a few simple rules; but enough talk. Let’s play a record and see just how simple these changes are to follow…


N. [Brightening] OK then! But Sage, could we possibly get away from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band? Possibly even out of the acoustic era altogether? Please?


S. A very reasonable request. Much as I like the ODJB, a change is as good as a rest. In any case, we actually need to get up a few years into the 1920s. It was then that the writers who made the ‘stock arrangements’ (or the arranger who worked for a particular band) would begin to make these nice key changes. Tell you what: we’ll go ’way up to 1928 for our first record. It’s ‘Ten Little Miles From Town’ by Paul Specht. What I want you to do is listen to the first chorus, and, using the tuned keyboard in the way we learned on page 1, find out what key it’s in, OK?


N. Right-o! [Gets up and walks toward work-bench] Let’s hear the first section of this record, which of course has been transferred at 78 rpm as a starting standard…


Click this YouTube link to hear the first chorus.


S. [Wistfully] Ah! I remember the day I junkshopped my first copy of that record! I was about 16 years old, and had never seen a Duophone record before…


N. What’s a Duophone?


S. It was a type of British gramophone with two linked soundboxes marketed about 1924, but that’s not important right now…. The music has a four bar introduction, then it goes into the first chorus… Find out what key it’s in, please!


Click this link for the evaluation of the key…


N. It’s getting easier to find keys with more practice! The first chorus was in C… I wonder what bizarre change there will be next, just to make things difficult?


S. I suggest you play the second chorus and find out… and by the way, to save time, we’ll just go straight into the evaluations from now on, OK?


Click this link for the 2nd chorus evaluation…


N. Oh; it’s still in the same key!


S. Well, that’s fine! You don’t have to change! Now on to the third chorus!


Click this link for the 3rd chorus evaluation…


N. It’s changed to the key of F; C has no sharps or flats, and F has one flat, so… Hey! It’s changed ‘in the normal way’, up the ladder of keys, just like the earlier tunes we tested!


S. Yes indeed. As the 1920s advanced, arrangers used more key changes than the old ‘traditional’ ones; but that didn’t mean they abandoned the old, standard key changes! Not at all!


N. Well, this is all going too smoothly! I bet there’s something really weird coming up! Let’s see…


Click this link for the 4th chorus evaluation…


S. Right: they’ve concluded this (lovely!) record in D flat. Clearly we can change from F to D flat, because Paul Specht’s arranger has done so, and very nice it is too. It’s a fairly unusual change, to be sure. But we need to classify them.


N. But surely the arranger could have gone to any key


S. No: that’s just the point! In those days they only tended to change to certain keys. Remember too, they’re unlikely to change to a key that’s not on our ‘ladder’ of acceptable keys for dance bands and Jazz!


N. But there are only seven of those!


S. Yes: and of course the key you’re starting from doesn’t count anyway, so that only leaves six! You see, it’s not going to be as difficult as you supposed. Now let’s see: first, imagine the piano keyboard. They were playing in F, weren’t they? And they went to D flat, right? Now the interval between any two adjacent notes is called a semitone. So the key could be said to have gone down four semitones, as follows:


F to E is one semitone;


F to E flat is two semitones;


F to D is three semitones;


F to D flat is four semitones, correct?


And since that key change on the Specht record was good, it follows that…?


N. I ought to get a copy of Duophone D-4005?


S. Aaarghh! Yes, yes, of course! [He impatiently makes a magical pass, and a thick sealed Duophone cardboard stock-box containing 24 mint copies of D-4005 materialises 10 feet up in the air. It instantly crashes to the ground]


N. [Screams] They’ll be broken, smashed to bits!


S. No, there were two sorts of these D-4000 Duophones, and the black-label ones were unbreakable, more or less. Don’t worry: you can unpack them later. But please answer my question: if we changed four semitones down from F to D flat and it sounded good, what does it mean?


N. Er… um, er.. [with a flash of inspiration] a change down from any key to the one four semitones below it is a ‘good’ change?


S. Oh, Joy! Yes, yes: excellent in fact. The main thing is not the ‘names’ of the keys you change between, but the distance – the interval between them.


N. That makes it easier to understand! Down – and I presume up? – a certain number of steps (called an interval), makes a ‘good’ key change?


S. Absolutely correct.


N. What about the original ‘ladder’ we dealt with before, then?


S. Well, you tell me…


N. OK: let’s see… here’s the table again…





B flat

E flat

A flat

D flat

1 sharp

No sharps or flats

1 flat

2 flats

3 flats

4 flats

5 flats


Let’s work out what we do when we change from G to C.. we start on G, and go up on the keyboard a number of semitones… let’s count them…


G to G sharp is one semitone;


G to A is two semitones;


G to A sharp is three semitones;


G to B is four semitones, and


G to C is five semitones…


So one step in the ‘standard ladder’ of keys goes up 5 semitones.


S. Correct! Whether it’s from G to C, C to F, B flat to E flat &c. each one is five semitones up.


N. So we now have two permissible intervals we can use to change the key of a number: we can go 5 semitones up, or 4 semitones down, and we know those are ‘good’ changes, and were popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Hang on: how many more such intervals are there?


S. Not too many. But wait: there’s something else we learned from playing our test record. What was it?


N. That’s easy! We transferred it at 78 rpm, and it was pretty much exactly in the keys of C, F and D flat. We didn’t have to re-pitch it. Therefore, the cutting lathe began at 78 rpm, and indeed continued at that speed throughout.


S. My, my! Brilliant! You even noticed that it wasn’t absolutely in tune… but it was near enough for our evaluation of the original keys! It should be tweaked for a serious transfer, but it was darn nearly ‘on the nose’ at 78! Also, to be fair, the 78 was slightly off-centre – the hole was not exactly in the middle; it produced no serious ‘wow’ for our purposes, but for a ‘professional’ transfer, that should be fixed too.


Here on this video, you can hear the whole side, uninterrupted by me messing about on a keyboard. Instead, captions have been put up at each stage of the record – a bit like in a silent movie! Ten Little Miles From Town video.


S. Before leaving you to get on with it yourself, let’s try out one last record: the Ipana Troubadours, January 1930: ‘KickinA Hole In The Sky’: this was my Record of the Month in November, by the way!


Interjection by the author of this page.Yes, ‘Kickin’’ was my Record of the Month in November… but that was when this page was first written, in November 2002. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge between that time and now, December 2009! I still like it though, and hope you will too!


N. H’mm! Like the Paul Specht record, this has four choruses, and neither band plays the verse of the songs! Anyhow, such is the quality of the music that we can easily overlook this omission! We’ll get straight into the first chorus…


Click this link for the 1st chorus evaluation…


S. Well, unlike the U.S. Brunswick side on the Duophone, this Columbia, though a gorgeous recording sonically, has been recorded too fast, with the result that when we play it a 78 rpm, it’s a bit too low in pitch. We need to speed it up a whisker….


Click this link for the corrected version…


N. A 2% speed increase on 78 rpm makes it around 79.5 rpm. Anyhow, the key is now securely A flat.


S. Right. On to the next chorus.


Click this link for the 2nd chorus evaluation…


N. Well, Scrappy Lambert is singing in the key of F…


S. [Dryly] Thank heavens the band is playing in F, too. What is the interval between A flat and F?


N. Er.. A flat to G is one semitone; G to G flat is two semitones; G flat to F is three semitones. So the key has moved down three semitones.


S. Yes: three semitones down is a ‘good’ key change, and indeed a very common one at this period. Incidentally, this is a ‘reversible’ key change: you can go up three semitones as well.


N. Oh! I never thought of that… surely all key changes are reversible, as you put it?


S. Yes they are, but some ‘reversible’ changes are much more widely used than others. Three semitones up – or down – is one of the most used key changes at this period. Anyhow, let’s proceed…


Click here for the third chorus evaluation…


N. It’s now in the key of G. That interval’s an easy one to work out: F, via F sharp, to G is two semitones, which is, of course, one tone.


S. Fine. One tone up is indeed another common change.


N. Is this a reversible change?


S. This sort of arrangement rarely descends a tone. It can be done, but without a suitably-crafted ‘linking passage’, it usually lessens the tension in a performance and hence is not encountered very often. However, anything is possible: remember, there are no hard and fast rules. Apparently the Coon-Sanders band would sometimes change key by a single semitone. That was really unusual. Above all, bear in mind that the publishers of these tunes sold their ‘stock arrangements’ of them to the thousands of dance bands in the U.S. and they also got factored in Europe & elsewhere. So it really wouldn’t do to make them very complicated indeed; if a ‘territory’ band of average ability (and in the U.S. that was exceptionally high) bought some stocks from a publisher and found them very difficult, they wouldn’t buy any more. So the publishers ensured that their stocks were relatively easy to play, but at the same time also ‘interesting’ both to the band, and to their dancing public. It was a narrow path to tread! But now, on to the next chorus…


Click here for the fourth chorus evaluation…


N. Gosh! It ends in B flat. That’s one key for each chorus!


S. Yes: excellent craftsmanship by whoever did this arrangement. More to the point, what interval was employed to change the key from G to B flat?


N. Umm: G to G sharp, then to A, then to A sharp (which is of course B flat). Ah! Three semitones again, only this time up instead of down!


S. [Complacently] Well, I did say that it was a commonly used interval! In a little while, I will ask you for a concise summary: but first, let us hear the whole side uninterrupted by Field’s incompetent poking at a keyboard. Actually, to be fair, his idea of playing a track and putting up video captions explaining what is going on, is not a bad idea, even if I say it myself…


Field: Gee, thanks, Sage!   Click here for the complete side with announcement & captions.


S. So: a summary, please?


N. The record used A flat, F, G and B flat. All the four keys are connected by what I now know to be standard intervals. Also, all four keys are from the seven in the table of ‘preferred keys’ for dance and Jazz.


S. Of course they are. But well done! I don’t imagine we’ll have to write another page on this subject. But I have one final little project for you. Can you find for me another set of keys related as these four are, in which this number could have been arranged? Remember, we started off in one key, then went down  three semitones; then up two semitones, then up three semitones.


N. Oh, that should be a piece of cake! [Grabs pencil and paper] Let’s see, we could start off in the key of G, then go down three semitones to E, and then.. ooops!





B flat

E flat

A flat

D flat

1 sharp

No sharps or flats

1 flat

2 flats

3 flats

4 flats

5 flats


S. Quite! E is a ‘forbidden key’ for our purposes!


N. Well, I’ll start on C then, and go down three semitones to A and.. oh!


S. A is forbidden too!


N. OK. Start on F and go down 3 semitones to D.. ulps!


S. D is forbidden! (actually it does get used but only  very rarely indeed…)


N. B flat! 3 semitones down to G.. At last! A preferred key! Great! Then two semitones up to A.. oh, blimey! That’s forbidden!


S. [Chuckles gleefully] Well, don’t give in! Keep trying!


N. Start on E flat; 3 semitones down to C. That’s good! Then two semitones up to D. Aarrgh!! Forbidden! This is bizarre!


S. You might as well check out the last possibility: that is, starting on D flat.


N. OK. D flat; then down 3 to B flat; that’s OK. Then up a tone to C, also OK. Then up 3 to E flat. At last! A combination that works!


S. Yes; but observe that of the seven possible starting keys, only two will allow that particular sequence to be used! The one we had here, starting on A flat, and the one you finally managed to discover, starting on D flat, correct?


N. Yes.


S. And what about the positions of A flat and D flat on the keyboard?


N. Er… they’re quite a way apart!


S. EXCELLENT! If something recorded originally in A flat got played back in D flat – or vice versa – it would be impossible not to notice! It would be either fantastically fast, or fantastically slow. So you see, on this Ipana Troubadours record, the particular keys we arrived at are indeed the only possible keys that could have been used.


N. So that 1920s and early 1930s arrangements, with their frequent (but largely standardised) key changes, make it easier by far to be confident about choosing the correct pitch at which to play the 78?


S. Amen!


N. What other standardised key changes are there?


S. [Sighs deeply] Please, not so much enthusiasm! I am old and tired and we both need a drink. In any case, you know more than enough now to work them out for yourself!


N. I crave pardon, Sage! [He hastens to the drinks cabinet…]





First written 10/11th November 2002, using only audio files.

Rewritten December 30th 2009 & 1st January 2010 using mp3s & YouTube links.

Happy New Year, everybody!