Off the back of comments on one of the answers to this question: How do room layouts affect tuning?

So, I know the short answer is "It depends on the instrument", but ideally I'd like to know a few rules and enough reasoning behind them so that I can understand the physics and theory to generalise further. I'm talking "short term" temperature changes, and the scenario is: you've rehearsed in a cold and empty auditorium (some people wore gloves), now the audience has show up and the room is noticeably warmer (they're fanning themselves with their programmes - it's hot!). What characteristics of your instrument dictate whether you need to sharpen up or flatten down and why?

Context: I'm a flute/piccolo player and have played mostly in wind bands, sometimes in orchestras. I know that my instrument is generally flat when cold and that the band usually "warms up" before tuning. I also know that if we haven't been playing for a while in a cold room, some wind players might blow warm air through their instruments before playing.

Previously, I'd assumed it was to do with the instrument dimensions. I assumed that for a flute, warm metal expands inwards (as well as outwards), the tube narrows and the pitch goes up. For some reason I'd never considered that the heat would cause it to lengthen, too, and that this increase in length would cause a (fractional!) decrease in pitch. Turns out I was wrong about the metal. This calculator suggests that the tube would actually only get bigger, so my theory about the metal expanding and somehow sharpening the pitch is wrong.

Comments on this question: How do room layouts affect tuning? imply that what is really affecting the tuning is the speed of sound changing in warm air. This makes sense since:

v (speed) = f (frequency) times w (wavelength)

If speed goes up, either frequency or wavelength (or both?) must also go up. And warm air with less molecule density will propagate sound faster. And air is probably easier to warm than metal (although air in a warm metal tube will stay warmer than air in a cold metal tube). But I am also aware of the counter example in the comments where a loudspeaker set to produce a 440Hz signal will produce that sound regardless of the surrounding air/medium. And I'm also aware (from the comments) that string instruments going flat in warmer temperatures makes sense - the string material lengthens, tension decreases, flatter notes.

So, part of my question is really is there some relationship between the material that vibrates to cause the sound and temperature and pitch? Is speed of sound in warm air only relevant when the sound is caused by a vibrating column of air? Or is it still relevant for the violins, just that the dominant factor there is the loss of tension?

  • 1
    Not sure how relevant, but "your voice on helium" is also an interesting situation that depends on the speed of sound in helium compared to normal air.
    – CamilB
    May 26 at 8:44
  • 1
    You can't have both an increase frequency and wavelength The two are inversely proportional. And it's not the "business" of the molecules that affects the speed of sound, it's the density of the air. Colder air is denser than warmer air (that's how hot air balloons work.) I believe that for stringed instruments, changing dimensions are more relevant than air density (the body or neck swells slightly which tightens the string.)
    – Duston
    May 26 at 13:49
  • 3
    You said: "For a flute, warm metal expands inwards (as well as outwards), the tube narrows..." This is incorrect. The inner diameter, wall thickness, and outer diameter all increase with thermal expansion. Try this calculator
    – Theodore
    May 26 at 15:05
  • 2
    @CamilB please see this question about voice on helium: physics.stackexchange.com/questions/122353/… It might not be intuitive, but it's timbre what's changing, not the pitch. Voice is not a wind instrument: the source of sound are vocal folds, rather than vibrating air itself. May 26 at 16:22
  • 2
    @Duston You can, if you don't hold the speed of sound constant.
    – Edward
    May 26 at 21:59

Let's compare the effects "flute becomes longer due to increasing temperature" and "density of air and thus speed of sound changes with increasing temperature" numerically:

Let's assume we have a wooden flute (or organ pipe) of 1 m resonator length = 1 m wave length. At 20 °C the speed of sound in air is 343,43 m/s, so the basic frequency of the flute is 343,43 Hz.

Now let's increase the temperature from 20 °C to 25 °C, a not-so-unrealistic scenario:

Thermal expansion of the flute material

For the change in length of the flute, the formula is Thermal Expansion formula, meaning

Change in length is approximately equal to coefficient of thermal expansion times length at the beginning times change in temperature.

The coefficient is Thermal coefficient of wood for (oak) wood. The length at the beginning was 1 m, the change in temperature is 5 °C = 5 K.

This gives us a change in (wave) length of 0,00004 m (or 0,04 mm).

Assuming the change in length were the only factor, this would cause a drop in frequency from 343,43 Hz to 343,416 Hz calculated using this very useful tool from Sengpiel Audio, a drop of 0,014 Hz (0.07 cent).

Increased speed of sound

Using the same tool, we calculate that a rise of 5 K leads to an increase in speed of sound to 346,35 m/s and thus to a new frequency of 346,35 Hz, a rise of 2,92 Hz (14.7 cent).

So the influence of the air density change is about 200 times higher than the influence of the thermal expansion of the wood.

This may be a very rough calculation, but it points in the right direction.

  • What about a metal pipe? The question is about a flute, most of which are made of metal these days.
    – phoog
    May 27 at 0:26
  • @phoog, there are different thermal expansion coefficients here and although I'm not sure of the exact metal in my flute (silver? my old one had a nickel alloy maybe?), I can't see any likely materials that are pushing the x200 limit over wood. Looks like air temperature dominates, at least for wind instruments.
    – Pam
    May 27 at 8:11
  • 2
    The highest CTE (coefficient of thermal expansion) I found in the table of material properties belongs to polyethylene, with up to 200 * 10^(-6) K^(-1), so 25 times the CTE of wood. Since the length expansion is linearly dependent on the CTE, this would lead to a drop of 0,35 Hz (1,75 cent) in the above example. Also, the thought of a polyethylene organ pipe makes me shudder.
    – Johannes
    May 27 at 10:38

There are a couple of different mechanisms that cause instruments to change pitch when the temperature changes. Which one applies depends on how the instrument makes sound happen.

When sound comes from a vibrating string

At sea level the speed of sound is vw=(331 m/s)√(T/273K), where T is the temperature in Kelvin. So if you're at sea level and it's 70ºF, the speed of sound is 343.65 meters per second, and when the temperature drops to 55ºF the speed of sound drops to 338.75 m/s.

The wavelength is the speed of sound divided by the frequency. So if you've got an instrument like a piano that's creating a vibration, that vibration has a frequency - temperature isn't going to change it. And that means since the speed of sound changed, the wavelength must change. You still have the same amount of sound energy being produced, so the instrument actually loses a little volume, but the pitch stays the same.

Except the pitch doesn't stay the same - because the temperature causes the parts of the piano to expand or contract, and they do it at different rates (called coefficients of expansion). That can make the strings tighter or looser, which will change the tuning.

When the sound comes from a vibrating air column

This one is kind of counter-intuitive. Wind and brass instruments don't make sounds like pianos, even if they're starting with a vibrating part like a reed. They're making the air vibrate inside a tube. The tube fixes the length of the wave - so the math works out differently.

Wavelength is still the speed of sound divided by frequency. So if you play an A440 at 70ºF, and your instrument is in tune, you've got wavelength = 343.65 (m/s)/440 Hz, or 0.78 m. And if you're in tune at 55ºF your wavelength = 338.75 (m/s)/440 Hz, or 0.77 m.

But your wavelength can't change! It's fixed by the length of your instrument's pipe and the location of the toneholes. So you still have the same wavelength: 0.78 m, and you have the same speed of sound, 338.75 m/s. And that means you're producing a frequency to balance the equation: 434 Hz. You're flat.

Once the air inside your instrument warms up, you'll get the right frequency. And at that point the speed of sound won't affect your tuning, because temperature will change the wavelength, but not the frequency, just like it will for the piano.


In addition to excellent Johannes answer:

Air humidity can also change speed of sound by 0.1–0.6% and this corresponds to several cents, which might be audible.


All these consideration might get more complicated since the musician blows warm and humid air into the instrument, and also warms it up by touching.


Anyone who owns a guitar will notice differences based on humidity. In high humidity, the wood of the guitar expands, causing the strings to become tighter and the pitch of the notes to be sharp. When the humidity decreases, the pitch of the strings tend to become flatter.

This principle, then, should be the same for heat. Increasing heat causes solids to expand, and decreasing causes them to contract.

I found a study done by someone online. (not sure who, or for what purpose of presentation). This person hypothesized the opposite and found he was wrong.

  • 1
    The study seems to show guitar (in general) going flatter in colder conditions, which sort of matches my experience with flute: warmer room => sharper instrument.
    – Pam
    May 26 at 19:23
  • Heat will expand the wood of the guitar and the strings, but at different rates. That results in a change in string tension - and whether it goes up or down depends on the difference in the coefficients of expansion. Steel strings will tend to go sharp, but nylon or catgut will tend to go flat.
    – Tom Serb
    May 27 at 0:48

Metals expand when they are warm, and contract when they are cold. Since the pitch of a flute or any other pipe instrument depends on the length of the tube, the pitch will change with temperature. But the pitch also depends on the density of the air in the tube, which also varies with temperature, so don't assume that the pitch will be lower in warm weather.

Stringed wooden instruments, are going to be much more complicated. Wood may expand with heat, but it will shrink if it dries out. Metal strings will expand and contract with temperature. Gut strings will change with humidity, and temperature as well.

I have a wooden harp with both wire and nylon strings. I tend to find that if the wire strings have gone sharp, then the nylon ones are usually flat, and vice-versa.

  • 2
    Actually, wind instruments go up in pitch as they get warmer, not down. This is because the increase in length is negligible in comparison with the increase in the speed of sound in warmer air, which increases the pitch. This is true of both metal and wooden pipes. And I too have wooden harps with both metal and nylon strings. Metal strings, being much less elastic than nylon strings, are affected more strongly by changes in length caused by the instrument expanding or shrinking with temperature or humidity. Also, metal strings are hardly affected by humidity, but nylon strings are. May 26 at 19:07
  • @ScottWallace aren't metal strings affected by temperature? Wouldn't nylon strings also become more or less stiff with less or more heat, I'm addition to the change in tension?
    – phoog
    May 27 at 0:14
  • @phoog Metal strings, at least plain (not composite or wound) react more strongly to temperature changes than nylon strings do (at comparable lengths for pitch) because they are not as elastic. May 27 at 12:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.