How low can you go? About 20 Hz (Hertz, or cycles per second) is the point at which the human ear starts to lose the concept of pitch — where vibration, for most people, changes from sound to feeling.

The lowest note on a pipe organ is a little above 16 Hz, and a double bass, depending upon whether it has four or five strings, descends to 41 or 31 Hz.

I dug up these factoids because the Portland Symphony Orchestra will begin its regular season on Oct. 3 and Oct. 5 with noted bass soloist and Grammy Award-winning composer Edgar Meyer.

Meyer will play his own bluegrass-inspired Concerto No. 1, and the Bottesini Concerto No. 2, a virtuoso work long considered unplayable by most bassists, deservedly so until steel replaced gut strings on the instrument.

The program on both days will also include the Strauss tone poem “Don Juan” and the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4.

A low bass has always been one of my favorite things in music, ever since listening to Chaliapin sing Mussorgsky, or hearing the Red Army Chorus on the radio. Does anyone recall  bass singers trying to descend to the last note of “Many brave souls are asleep in the deep, so beware be-e-e-e-ware.” (Lyrics composed in 1897 by Arthur J. Lamb, who also wrote “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.”)

I was also influenced by the Wanamaker organ, the world’s largest, in the Philadelphia department store of the same name. During the most profound notes of a Bach Toccatta and Fugue, objects on the glass counters would begin to dance.

There is nothing like the powerful bass entrance of the organ in the Saint Saens symphony of the same name, especially when coupled with an obbligato on the highest range of the piano.

The lack of basses is a drawback in virtually all vocal groups, because of the greater carrying power of the tenor and soprano lines. For that reason, the great New England teacher and composer William Billings recommended that church choirs have at least twice as many basses as sopranos — a prescription that, to my knowledge, has never been filled.

Carrying power may not be the right term; the problem may be a peculiarity of the human ear, which responds best to the frequencies of the spoken word,  higher than those of most bass lines in choral music.

The actual carrying power of very low-frequency sounds is shown by the response of elephants to vibrations below the range of human hearing, which they apparently use to communicate over long distances.

The lowest animal sound I ever heard was made by a tom turkey we raised a few years ago. Named for a prominent politician so that we would feel no remorse over butchering him, he dressed out at over 40 pounds.

When he was in a display mode, wing tips down and tail feathers fanned out, there always seemed to be a heavy bulldozer starting up a few miles away.

It took quite a while to discover that it was the turkey himself making the extremely low-pitched noise, I assume with his vocal cords. The sound had the effect of ventriloquism, because it was hard to tell where it was coming from. Anyway, it was much more impressive than “gobble-gobble,” and Lynne loved it. 

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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