The Frontal Cortex

B Flat

Who knew B flat was so strange? Robert Krulwich explains, as only he can:

During World War II, the New York Philharmonic was visiting the American Museum of Natural History. During rehearsal, somebody played a note that upset a resident live alligator named Oscar. Oscar, who’d been in the museum on 81st Street, suddenly began to bellow. Naturally, with so many scientists in residence, an experiment was quickly devised to see how to get Oscar to bellow again. Various musicians — string, percussive and brass — were brought to Oscar to play various notes. It turned out the culprit was B flat, one octave below middle C.

The experiment was described back in the 1940s.

I repeated the experiment on an ABC News broadcast in the 1990s, playing a B flat to a collection of gators in at a roadside attraction in Florida and recording their bellows.

Why B flat?

You’d have to ask an alligator.

B flat has also been known to levitate in stairwells and emanate from black holes.


  1. #1 kirkmc
    February 20, 2007

    On an absolute level, there is no such thing as a “B flat”. Different periods and different cultures use different base tones (called the diaposon, applied usually to the A above middle C). For example, today’s standard diapason is A=440 (Hz), but in the baroque period (and in much baroque music played today) can range as low as 392, or as high as 480.

    While this standard is generally respected for non-historical music, it is not used universally.


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