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Okay, so we learned here that orchestras tune to A, and that one reason they do that is because A is an open string on your typical orchestral string instruments. We also learned here that wind bands prefer to tune to Bb because Bb is a no-valves-down note for valved brass / first position for trombones.

The natural follow-up question: do woodwind instruments also have a "preferred" tuning note? (Not that there is necessarily a single note that works for all woodwinds, but if you look at, say, a C flute, would that particular instrument have a "preferred" tuning note?)

As a (lousy) player of the Bb clarinet, I know there are certainly some notes that are bad for tuning, e.g. written Ab5, A5, and Bb5 (at the top of the lower register), but I'm not sure whether there are any particularly good notes. I guess there isn't really an equivalent to an "open string" on a woodwind instrument - if you open all the holes and keys on a woodwind instrument, you'll probably get some kind of bizarre non-note.

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4 Answers 4

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This is from a long time flute player. 40+ years.
On a flute the 'open' note is 2nd octave C# which is a horrible note to tune on due to some compromises that were made in the original design of the Boehm system flute. The c# key is the tiny one at the top its that way because it acts as both the C# key and the key you open to get D and Eb in the flutes 2nd octave. Some newer flutes now have a dedicated extra c# trill key which solves some of the compromise but that's a whole other discussion.

So if you are tuning to other instruments most flutists I know of tune to A in the first and 2nd octaves because sometimes you can get one in tune and the other is off.

If I am tuning with an electronic turner I usually check a number of different notes and try to hit a happy medium. No setting is going to be in tune across the flutes entire range without making various embouchure (lip) adjustments just due to the nature of the beast.

The reason I don't usually do a number of notes other than octaves with when tuning to a piano for example is it just annoys the other person.

If you want an in depth discussion on why the fingering mechanisms and scales of flutes are an exercise in tradeoffs, I suggest Theodore Boehm's book The flute and flute playing. Which goes into detail on how he came up with what is essentially the modern flute. Many other woodwinds have the same issues so its as good an intro as any.

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1  
"...because sometimes you can get one in tune and the other is off." Your answer (as well as Pat's and Carl's) touch on an important aspect of wind instruments which is their intonation, or how well they are tuned to themselves. Technically speaking, modifying the tuning of a wind instrument will also change its intonation. This necessitates the "testing multiple pitches" to determine how to compensate for intonation. –  Caleb Hines Jun 4 at 19:21
    
Would you agree that sometimes flute players try to find a medium between the two - so that they have two notes slightly out of tune instead of one note very out of tune? –  jjmusicnotes Jun 6 at 13:03

For the most part, you're right that there's more leeway when it comes to tuning pitches for woodwinds, and they're mostly happy to tune either to concert A or concert Bb depending on the situation. (It's not quite true that there's no equivalent to open strings or valves, a blown pipe with or without reeds will absolutely produce a pitch when it's entirely open)

When I played clarinet, I found concert Bb to be somewhat more useful to tune to (primarily since written C4 involves a slightly more straightforward fingering than written B3 with its skipped key or trill key fingering) and I used that when tuning to something like a piano, but in an orchestral situation or (especially) when working with strings, A was more useful. More importantly, you will notice that most wind players (including brass) will actually test several pitches against the tuning pitch in order to get a general sense of the tuning across the instrument.

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Just wanted to add that the other pitches players use tend to be notes in the overtone series over a specific fundamental. –  jjmusicnotes Jun 6 at 12:57

Sort of not really :-) . I might suggest defining "good" as picking a note which is at the median point of all notes' deviation from a true-temperament scale. That is, for arbitrary tuning pitch, pick a note such that the other notes on the instrument range equally above and below that pitch's matching scale tones. This would minimize your need to adjust pitch, on average, as you play. (Obviously you could do a "weighted average" by fitting the most common subrange of the instrument).

This differs from open-string tuning, where the theory (in part) is that you can adjust fingered notes but not open string notes -- unless you've got a whammy bar on your violin :-) ; and similarly for tuning w/ a fully closed trombone slide or no-valve brass notes.

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Certainly it's not as strong a preference for woodwinds as it would be for strings, because strings need an open string note to tune to as it's completely pointless to try and tune a stopped note. Slightly less pointless on an instrument with frets, but physically difficult nonetheless.

I'm a recorder player, and what notes are good to tune to depends very much on what recorder you happen to be playing. The common types are C or F recorders, which refers to the lowest note on the instrument, the one you get with all holes fully closed. This is a terrible note to tune as it's quite weak and has different pressure requirements to most of the rest of the instrument, so it gives you a poor reference to work from. The note one octave above is also a terrible tuning note.

By convention we become used to tuning to A, which works most of the time. However, the most useful thing on the recorder is to tune to a note relating to the key you're going to be playing in. So a recorder consort, absent the requirements of other instruments, may well find it most useful to tune a chord of the key of the piece, and each player might play several different notes from that triad in order to ensure they know how they're fitting in around the other players. It's also fairly common to play first and last chords of the piece.

After a while, a decent group will be quite happy with where they are in relation to their colleagues and just be able to play in tune with the normal continual adjustment (recorders are very sensitive to breath pressure for note pitch, which is both annoying and very useful).

When playing with strings, an A is quite acceptable on either kind of recorder, and it's frequently useful to play it in two or three octaves and throw some Ds in as well to make sure over the whole range.

Long story short: recorders have no preferred tuning note, and work best if you play several.

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