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In 1936 American Standards Association (and the International Organization for Standardization in 1955) accepted that A would be tuned at 440 Hz (or cycles per second). Yet despite the fact that a standard has been accepted, orchestras frequently deviate from this standard.

The San Francisco Symphony (reportedly) tunes to 441 or 442 Hz
The Boston Symphony Orchestra (reportedly) tunes to 444 Hz
The New York Philharmonic (reportedly) tunes to 443 Hz
and The Berlin Philharmonic (reportedly) tunes to 445 Hz

I know there's a tendency for some European countries to tune to 442 Hz and German orchestras are among others who tune to 445 Hz. But what makes an orchestra choose one of these numbers? Who makes the decision, the orchestra's leaders/committee or the conductor? What is the point of making this distinction? Why, after standardizing a tuning system, go to the trouble of changing it by so slight a degree?

(For the sake of this question, let's not take into account period instruments or ensembles which are famously tuned to anything from 415 Hz to 490 Hz)

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Here is a site purporting to list the tuning frequencies of many orchestras: members.aon.at/fnistl/index.html –  James Tauber May 13 '11 at 9:40
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related bit of trivia: the French standard was 439 Hz (by law) but 440 Hz was much easier to produce in the lab (due to 440 being a composite number) –  James Tauber May 13 '11 at 9:43
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a higher frequency gives a brighter sound so I wonder if orchestras started to compete with each other as to who sounded brighter. –  James Tauber May 13 '11 at 9:44
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Wikipedia has a nice article about the history of the concert pitch and the reasons for changes –  groovingandi May 26 '11 at 12:42
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Other than being little more than personal preference or tradition, there may be another good reason for tuning a little high. At one of the concerts I went to last year, (a solo guitar concert), the performer informed us that he always tuned a little sharp, so that as his guitar went out of tune during a piece, he'd start a little sharp, for most of the piece he'd be exactly in tune, and then he'd finish a little flat. This meant that he was therefore in tune for more of the piece and less noticeably out for less of the piece. –  jClark94 Feb 4 '12 at 9:50

9 Answers 9

It is often a matter of tradition inside the orchestra that becomes out of control for conductors.

When they create their own orchestra they have the pleasure to decide this for themselves.

The conservatism from musicians has several reasons:

  • Some Orchestra have a concert hall with a large organ which is tuned for this frequency

  • Wind players usually complain because refitting a wind instrument to a central tune can be expensive and dangerous. They have a certain capacity of adjusting the tone by technique and with wood especially they have to do it anyway because of temperature and moisture during a concert but it is easier to start from the reference they know.

  • First players, old members and conductors with absolute pitch complain and use this as a power mean.

  • An established orchestra's staff changes only gradually. New musicians are hired a few at a time.

  • Musicians passing job interviews know about it and comply to get hired.

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It should be added that besides organs also most tuned instruments of the percussion section (concert bells, xylophone, tubular bells, NOT timpani of course) can't change the tuning easily. –  groovingandi May 26 '11 at 12:44

As a brassplayer, 442 on up seriously sucks. We are placed in the position of playing where the instrument doesn't resonate in the same way. Even 4 cents difference will render the slides too long even if the open instrument can be accomodated to a higher tuning frequency. Fie on brighter tuning!

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+1 for a username that goes with the post. :P Welcome to Music SE! –  American Luke Dec 12 '12 at 13:39

Orchestras tune higher if they can get away with it because higher pitches sound more brilliant. This has led to inflation of standard pitch over time. There are, however, practical limits to how much inflation is possible, since audiences will cry foul if the result is closer to the next semitone up. Also, some instruments, such as pianos, can be damaged if drastically retuned on a whim, and others, such as glockenspiels, cannot be easily retuned at all.

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It's interesting to note that before the standardization onto A=440 in the 1910-1930 period, orchestral woodwind and brass players had to own two sets of instruments, one of which could be tuned to the lower standard pitch, and one of which could be tuned to the higher standard pitch. That's the only way they could get work with different orchestras who chose different standard pitches.

This is off-topic, but I know a bassoonist who has two different Baroque basoons, one that will accommodate A=392 and one that will accommodate A=415. I presume that she also has a modern bassoon for A=440. Consider that these instruments cost in the neighborhood of US $20,000 to $30,000 each.

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I can't speak for all of the orchestras on that list, but I can at least offer independent hearings of the rumors about the BSO tuning to A = 444.

(This came up in a discussion with my voice teacher of the challenges when I was grumbling about being able to hit high notes more easily if the pitch standard were lower!)

At any rate, she also mentioned that for many years, the orchestra has tuned to A = 444 rather than A = 440. The specific reason offered for this was that this gave the brass instruments a fuller, "brighter" sound. (I think this is in part due to the greater amount of French music the BSO was known for compared to other US orchestras, and the predominance they gave to brass instruments.) Of course, this comes at the expense of making it much harder on vocalists, who have to work that much harder to hit their high notes.

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A good reason for an orchestra to be slightly sharp is that it will produce a different sound. Not because there is anything special about the frequency 442, but simply because listeners are used to hearing concert pitch everywhere. Although most people do not have absolute pitch in that they can tell that a given orchestra is sharp by a few cents, they can probably still sense that something is different. The frequencies in the music are not hitting quite the same spots on the basiliar membrane of the inner ear as music in A = 440.

Part of it could simply be artistic defiance: We're not going to let some standards body tell us what pitch to play! What for? This music is a final product. If it is recorded, it's not meant to be a backing track for someone to jam with, so why does it have to conform to some absolute pitch? Standards are for things like nuts and bolts, not for art. No, siree. We are going to take the standard and "put our two Herz in".

It could also be snobbery to some extent: keeping low-end, untuneable instruments out of the orchestra. Not only that, but also preventing the "people at home" who listen to recorded music from being able to play along with the orchestra and actually sound good. An amateur trying to play along with the music will be slightly flat, which instantly creates the false sense that something is wrong with his or her skill relative to the musicians in the recording. The purpose of the tuning standard is that anyone can instantly play along with anyone else, or with a recording of anyone else. Snooty musicians have obvious reasons for rejecting such a concept.

It should be noted that instruments do not always have perfect mathematical intonation anyway. For instance, on a piano, the upper end of the keyboard is tuned a little sharp and the lower end is a little flat. So even if the A above middle C is 440, the A which is several octaves higher will not be an exact multiple of 440.

This is because the harmonics themselves are not perfect multiples, and pianos are tuned so that the higher notes of chords do not jar against the harmonics of the lower notes.

In a mathematically ideal string, the harmonics are perfect multiples, but in real strings, the harmonics are a little sharp. So a piano's A=440 note will not have a harmonic that is exactly 4 x 440 = 1760 Hz.

This means that pianos are rarely "in concert pitch" all across the keyboard, and any piano which is will sound worse for it. If a piano isn't in the same pitch throughout its range, it is implausible to think that an entire orchestra is.

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Clarinetists really suffer when the orchestra tunes high. Once the barrel is all the way in, the only way to increase the pitch further is with the lip. Even if a short barrel is to hand, all the woodwinds are set up to be in tune at one length and any variation from that also requires the players to constantly adjust their pitch - if you pitch higher, the short notes go sharp and the long notes go flat relatively. As the orchestra tunes to a long note on a Soprano clarinet, its easy for very nearly the whole instrument to end up sharp.

Some orchestras supply the clarinets to be used with the orchestra, and perhaps these have been specially made for the higher pitch. There is a surprising amount of art and science in making a clarinet that plays in tune - for example, some of the holes are scooped out internally (i.e. "barrel shaped") to adjust the pitch.

I certainly find listening to orchestras that tune sharp to be mildly unpleasant. But I should think if you are playing sharp all the time you quickly find standard pitch to sound wrong.

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My Mother has played in an orchestra all her life and has always tuned to 442 Hz. The reason for this is as music played at a slightly higher pitch resonates better than at standard tuning. Thus giving it a better sound.

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I am surprised nobody mentioned baroque orchestras yet. They use the tuning used at the time of the composer. The Orchestra of the 18th Century tunes to (IIRC) A = 430.

The French orchestras played at 392, a few centuries ago (I'll look up when). I don't know why though. I'll look that up too.

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