Most of the time, an orchestra will tune to the oboe.

Why is that? What is the next instrument if, for some reason, there are no oboes?


5 Answers 5


I found this:

Circumstances of history, mostly, but also acoustics. The first orchestras (in the late 1600s) were mainly string instruments. A pair of oboes was sometimes used to strengthen the first and second violin parts. Soon composers were writing separate parts for the oboe, exploiting its singing tone as a contrast to the violins. The bright, rather penetrating sound of the oboe was easy to hear, and its pitch was more stable than gut strings, so it was natural to rely on it for tuning (One can also imagine it settling, or preventing arguments. Twenty string players squabbling over a tuning note, then asking the oboist to intervene). Other instruments drifted in and out of the orchestra – flutes, bassoon, French horns, clarinets – before it’s instrumentation became relatively standardized as we know it today. But oboes were almost always present, so they became the standard instrument for tuning.

Source: Why does the orchestra always tune to the oboe?

And reading the link provided by @leftaroundabout in Why tune to the oboe? we can say the reason there is mostly because of historial reasons. In other words, it is a habit.

  • 2
    Not only a habit! The oboe's tuning is very stable, by this I mean that it doesn't change so quick as that of most other orchestra instruments because of heat/cold/moisturity/dryness. (This is already in the quote you gave, but I thought it hadn't gotten enough attention.)
    – 11684
    Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 15:38
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    @11684 I'm talking about the main reason: "we can say the reason is mostly because of historial reasons". I don't mean it's only that :)
    – SysDragon
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 6:43
  • I read the answer carefully, I just thought it wasn't obvious there was more to it than just habit. I agree with your answer, but I think the stability of the oboe deserved some more attention.
    – 11684
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 6:45
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    Well, well... I've been playing the oboe for decades, and I still don't consider it stable, tune-wise. If I conducted an open-mided group (like, the oboists aren't going to be offended), I'd probably get a tenor sax player to tune on something reliable and to provide or the rest. FWIW, in the groups where we're asked to provide, we do oblige, but with a permanent eye on the electronic tuner.
    – J B
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 21:55

An oboe is an instrument with quite rigid pitch (possibly somewhat depending on the reed, with oboe reeds having pretty much the shortest lifetime of all reed instruments). String instruments can be painlessly retuned, and most wind instruments can be tuned a bit more or at least can be better pitch-shifted when playing using embouchure, air pressure or tilting.

You probably don't want to dick around with the basic pitch of an oboe reed that happens to work well at the moment. It's not likely to achieve much and may well shorten reed life. Also the default amount of lip and air pressure is already at the top of instrument scale (as a bit of compensation, the actual air flow is quite small, making oboe the prime contender for circular breathing techniques) so there is not likely a lot of variation possible without danger of leaving the sweet spot of amicable tone production.

So tuning to the oboe is in the best interest of the concert.


Because the oboe player can sound the A with only one hand. The left hand, of course, being busy holding a tuning fork to their ear.

I have not been able to find any online source for this, but I heard it from a normally trustworthy source. Makes a lot of sense to me. Of course, the matter of why we tune to the A4 to begin with is related...

Nowadays, the trumpet can equally easily play a concert A4 with one hand, but the trumpet would not always have been there in baroque times (as indicated by SysDragon's source).


Basically, You can't tune an oboe, but you can tune everything else, so at least the orchestra will be in tune with itself. No one in the audience will notice; everything is relative.

  • 6
    Nonsense. You tune an oboe by adjusting the staple of the reed. New Grove,, vol. 19 p. 254. Take a good look next time: you'll see the oboist tune to some reference like a tuning fork or electronic gadget before anything else happens.
    – user207421
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 4:51

If you have ever seen an oboe on an oscilloscope, it produces a perfect sine wave. As contrast a trumpet's output has a much more complex sound wave. An experienced oboist can produce a perfect standing wave. Today we have electronic machines that can do this, but in the mid-17th century they had to use natural means. This has carried on through tradition till today, even though we can do this by machine now.

  • 1
    Have you read this? bretpimentel.com/why-tune-to-the-oboe It talks about that part on "Because the oboe’s pitch is the most reliable."
    – SysDragon
    Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 13:25
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    it produces a perfect sine wave That's incorrect. The oboe does not produce a perfect sine wave, not even close. Here is an example of the oboe's harmonic content: i.imgur.com/Nlr4Uho.png And here is an oboe's waveform: i.imgur.com/K8k2koG.png Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 13:51
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    @11684 The oboe can't produce a perfect sine wave, regardless of the oboist's skills. Also, the timbre of the oboe is not the simplest available in a orchestra. If they wanted the simplest one, they wouldn't choose the oboe. This answer is lazy, misleading, unsourced, wrong, and doesn't even make sense. Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 15:18
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    @11684 Both the flute and the clarinet have a simpler waveform (their harmonic content is not as rich as the oboe, they produce fewer partials and/or partials have less amplitude). For reference, harmonic content of said instruments all played piano A440Hz: oboe: i.imgur.com/5ZstnnS.png flute: i.imgur.com/s4ZZv8r.png clarinet: i.imgur.com/ZC97MEE.png Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 16:18
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    @11684 Those later pictures aren't the waveforms, but the harmonic content. Each spike means that there's a component of the waveform at the frequency. In JCPedroza's earlier comment, there are links to images for both the harmonic content and the waveform of the oboe. The waveform is a combination of parts shown in the harmonic content. It's sort of like a product and factors. The waveform is like "50"; the harmonic content is 2, 5, 5 (since 2*5*5=50), with 5 twice as present as 2. Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 17:06

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