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There's this phenomenon among instrumentalists to constantly raise the pitch of the concert A. This generally occurs among string players, since the range of tunings for woodwinds, for example, is often severely limited or nonexistent. Wikipedia (or rather, one of its editors) claims the reason for this is:

This "pitch inflation" seemed largely a product of instrumentalists' competing with each other, each attempting to produce a brighter, more "brilliant", sound than that of their rivals. (In string instruments, this is not all acoustic illusion: when tuned up, they actually sound objectively brighter because the higher string tension results in larger amplitudes for the harmonics.) This tendency was also prevalent with wind instrument manufacturers, who crafted their instruments to play generally at a higher pitch than those made by the same craftsmen years earlier.

Out of curiosity, I started browsing through the edit history; the above quote has existed in (almost) its current form on another page since 2006, and the information can be dated back to September 2002. The rationale seems to make sense, but it's very tenuous to make that claim without backing it up, especially since it was made by some editor 7 years ago.

I tried to find some actual research in this field, but my searches at scholar.google.com were fruitless, as were searches of various online databases.

So, basically, is it true that pitch inflation can be attributed to the sound sounding more "brilliant" at higher frequencies? And if so, what makes it sound that way?

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There seems to exist a counter-movement, mainly supported by singers, but also instrumentalists arguing for richer overtones, as can be seen here. –  guidot Apr 17 '13 at 8:31
I suspect that History of Performing Pitch: The Story of "A" by Bruce Haynes discusses this. –  Dave Apr 17 '13 at 13:32
@guidot I could see why singers hated it, because of the strain on their voices, but I never really knew that there were many instrumentalists against it as well for reasons other than timbre issues on aerophones. –  luolimao Apr 18 '13 at 0:08
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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Variations in pitch and tuning systems stem all the way back to Renaissance / pre-Renaissance. Before a standard tuning system was codified, musicians in each city basically had their own tuning system, and instrument makers were limited with what they could do. The result was that if musicians from different towns / cities met, they wouldn't be able to play with one another as their instruments were not in tune.

Once technology increase, tuning systems were able to be consistent across countries - thereby improving consistency of sound and instrument creation.

To this day, pitch still continues to vary, though it is purely by choice relating to preferred aesthetics. For example, here in the US, "A" is tuned to 440hz, while in Europe, it may be 442 or higher. The reason for this is exactly the question you posed in your post - that Europeans desire a slightly more brilliant sound. Pitch inflation itself cannot be attributed to an ensemble's brilliant sound, but it can be attributed to an ensemble's desire for a more brilliant sound.

So, how does it work?

It is the same reason why audio engineers boost higher frequencies on cymbals for the extra bright, crisp sound. It works through the way sound waves resonate.

I will omit all the figures and pictures that would make this explanation easier, and unfortunately only provide a very brief overview for sake of time.

Think about the overtone series. On a string, touching the string at specific nodes will generate different divisions of the wave that still divide evenly into the original vibration of that string. Let us say that you now have a second string, tuned slightly higher, but for all intents and purposes is perfectly in tune with itself. Played by itself, it will still yield all of the same overtones from the same string divisions, however, when compared to the original string, the sound waves of each string resonating openly will not align. Since the second string is tuned slightly higher, its sound waves will be sounding ever so slightly faster than the original string. This discrepancy between strings causes the second string to stand out over the first, creating what most musicians consider to be a more "brilliant" sound.

While I have never heard of individual musicians doing it, it is certainly possible for some orchestras. In the US, in a professional orchestra, they are looking for as homogenous a sound as possible. An individual performer preferring to not tune with the group would not have a job very long. Generally, an orchestra will decide what the entire group will tune to, and in my experience it has little to do with "out doing" another musician, and more to do with achieving preferred aesthetics. After all, there are many other ways to better "out do" another group.

Lastly, I must correct the quoted paragraph in the OP and say that tuning a string higher does not objectively give more amplitude to higher overtones. Technically, since the string tuning is changed, it actually gives you a completely different overtone series. However, since that series so closely relates to the original series, it gives the impression of amplification. Again, recording engineers use this technique and others to create a more "full" sound.

Hope that helps.

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Yeah, I didn't mean individual musicians, but rather instrumental groups (as opposed to singers, many of whom have railed against such practices), but I guess I didn't make my thoughts clear. Regardless, thanks for pointing me in the right direction. –  luolimao Apr 18 '13 at 0:03
A = 440 Hz in U.K. and most of Europe –  Tim Apr 18 '13 at 16:07
Really? I thought it was Europe that used 442 Hz and above, and only the U.S. used 440. –  luolimao Apr 22 '13 at 3:33
U.K. and a lot of U.S. use 440, however, Boston Symphony and New York Phil. apparently use 442.Europe, you're right, uses mainly 442.German and Austrian symphony orchestras apparently tune to 443. Funny, the bands I play with in France tune to 440 ! And modern musicians playing Baroque music end up at 415, to emulate the tuning of the time.This makes some instruments play a semitone lower than normal. –  Tim Apr 22 '13 at 17:02
To my knowledge, 440 Hz is the standard all around the world. However, individual orchestras indeed frequently choose to play in a different pitch. –  Qqwy Jun 7 '13 at 12:23
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Whilst all the above may be true, how does the phenomenon stand against growing numbers of electric guitarists who seem to be doing the exact opposite, i.e. tuning down, often many semitones.

For string players, if the tighter strings do give a more brilliant sound, then why don't they use slightly thicker strings which would have to be strung tighter.Surely the effect would be the same?

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Good point to be made, but not an answer. –  leftaroundabout May 1 '13 at 19:49
String tension is considered in the question.Questions often begat other questions. Thus this is an answer. –  Tim May 2 '13 at 21:45
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In an amateur group the pitch rising usually starts in the woodwind and brass.

Amateur brass and woodwind players who do not do any practise between rehearsals (the vast majority of amateur players) usually go sharp due to tired embouchures during rehearsals.

I have in the past played in many amateur orchestras where this has happened and it did not start in the string section. At least one orchestra had a woodwind and brass section that at the end of a concert could finish up much sharper than the strings.

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I was talking about tuning the entire orchestra to a higher frequency on purpose. But yeah, I've noticed the same tendency for amateur aerophone players to go sharp. –  luolimao Apr 24 '13 at 21:44
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