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At the moment, absolute pitch seems to be using 12et, with A=440 Hz. Would this have been the case, say, in the Baroque period, when A=quite a bit less than 440 Hz? With some orchestras using 442 Hz, and other variants, does this actually affect people with absolute pitch? Or is it more like 'Yes, it's a green colour, but not exactly the shade I had in mind'.

Edit: I have in mind not what pitch various orchestras played an 'A' at - that is available from many sources, and has varied considerably. More along the lines of someone now with AP can say "That's an A", whereas two or three centuries ago, it wouldn't necessarily have been the same note. Hopefully this will clarify the question I'm trying to ask.

Another edit: this has little to do with the tuning base of orchestras over time, more to do with what a note was recognized by someone possessing AP/PP when in fact, an 'A' could actually have been what is now, for example, a G#. Would they say A or G#, for instance. I'd hoped the header may have revealed the quest. Perhaps there are more apposite tags?

  • That depends on his 'personal' reference frame. See my answer below... – mramosch Sep 21 '15 at 20:22
  • A very interesting question! One thing that I was surprised to not see included in the question or any of the answers is the different temperaments used through the ages. As others have mentioned in the answers, it would be quite difficult to maintain Absolute Pitch with the different tuning standards but there was also a time when temperament was not agreed upon, so that would cause a lot of issues with AP as well. I'd be rather curious to hear thoughts on that as well. – Basstickler Sep 21 '15 at 20:38
  • possible duplicate of Why are orchestras tuned differently? – 200_success Sep 21 '15 at 21:51
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    You seem to be asking whether humans with perfect pitch have an innate "home frequency" or set of frequencies that is due to biology rather than being learned. The answer is no, they don't. Perfect pitch is arrived at via relative pitch; people with PP will indeed have different A's. (Commenting because I can't look up references right now.) – Matthew Read Sep 22 '15 at 4:19
  • @MatthewRead - indeed, that's what I'm trying to establish. I'd have said that relative pitch can be arrived at when one has AP, rather than the other way round. As AP apparently doesn't need reference to an existing pitch, but that's my theory - others may provide a more convincing argument. – Tim Sep 22 '15 at 6:40
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When people today play "early music" they usually select either A = 415 (exactly one half-step lower than A = 440) or the "early French Baroque" pitch of A = 392 (exactly one whole-step lower than A = 440), depending on the repertoire. Less commonly, the much higher A = 465 is used, to reflect a tuning associated with 17th-century Venice. But these tunings are not precisely what was used throughout all the locations in the Baroque era and afterwards; they are what modern musicians who play early music have settled on for the sake of having standards.

It's my understanding that during these centuries, the local "base tuning" sometimes varied from region to region and even from city to city. The most common calibration was usually the base pitch of the best pipe organ in the area. Or the hand-built tuning fork used by the guy who built and tuned the instruments, which might or might not agree with the tuning forks used by other musical technicians in other cities.

This makes sense, as in that era they didn't have precise electronic measuring devices, and they also didn't have standards committees across nations that could adopt standards. The same holds for clocks. Every town had its own, unique, different time for 12:00 noon, and everybody in town calibrated their (not very accurate) pocket watches to the central town clock. Standardization didn't happen until railroads were built and precise times were needed to keep trains from colliding, which means that more accurate clocks and the means to synchronize them had to be developed also.

So I would surmise that musicians in those places and those times had to be more flexible, being able to re-tune instruments and ears as they moved around. (Most brass and woodwind instruments actually could not be re-tuned over that wide a range, so those musicians, I'm told, often had two or three instruments custom-built to accommodate different tunings for different locations and different styles of music.) The idea of "absolute" or "perfect" pitch would not be a useful skill; it would be more like an impediment to working with different musical groups if one traveled. However, having accurate relative pitch would be just as useful as it is today.

  • "precise times were needed to keep trains from colliding" Really, they used timing rather than signals? I always assumed it was just so people could catch the train (if the town clock is behind the the railroad clock you'll miss it). Presumably if a train breaks down or runs late, and you're relying on clocks rather than signals to avoid collisions, then you'll have a collision just as you would if someone's clock was wrong. – Steve Jessop Sep 21 '15 at 16:06
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    @SteveJessop: There were no useful signals at that time. theinstitute.ieee.org/technology-focus/technology-history/… – Guffa Sep 21 '15 at 20:10
  • @Guffa: so the first steam railway was 1804, telegraphy was used by the late 1830s. Glad the "death zone" in which the only available technology was to hope everyone else sticks to the timetable, didn't last too long ;-) – Steve Jessop Sep 22 '15 at 9:33
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As well as the variation in pitch at different places and different times, in some periods different pitches were used for different types of music. An example is "chorton" and "kammerton" in Germany in Bach's time. The two pitches were often about a third apart. This gave rise to some curious written notations when players from both "traditions" joined forces for some reason - for example see the discussion of Bach's Cantatas 131 and 150 at http://www.idrs.org/publications/controlled/DR/DR9.1/DR9.1.Bukoff.html.

Some early Flemish harpsichords were built with two keyboards, pitched a fourth apart, operating on the same set of strings. The way they were used is not known (presumably it was so commonplace at the time that nobody bothered to write it down!) but it is speculated that they were built so that players who couldn't transpose written music at sight could use one instrument for both secular and sacred music, by playing the appropriate keyboard to get the correct pitch. See the diagram at http://orgs.usd.edu/nmm/Keyboards/RuckersHarpsichord10000/Ruckers1643.html and a picture of an original instrument here: http://www.johanhofmann.com/transposer/instrument. Few of these instruments have survived unaltered - many of them were later enlarged and rebuilt with two conventional (non-transposing) keyboards. French harpsichord builders, in particular, could make more profit from upgrading old Flemish instruments than from building new ones.

  • Thanks, but I was asking more about people's perfect (absolute) pitch over time, rather than a potted history of different pitches used by players over time. – Tim Sep 21 '15 at 19:54
  • In that case, I don't think the question is answerable without a time machine. But it doesn't make much sense to imagine that a person with "perfect pitch" might think all the music he/she had ever heard was being played at the wrong pitch (because it wasn't at A=440), so there must be some element of learning involved. Maybe a better description of "perfect pitch" would be "excellent long-term pitch memory". – user19146 Sep 21 '15 at 21:40
  • Thanks for the link to the discussion of Bach's Cantatas 131 and 150. That is the kind of citation I was looking for. – user1044 Sep 24 '15 at 4:16
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Absolute pitch is a mental/physiognomical phenomena - it doesn't change!
At least not within a few generations ;-)

The translation or mapping into meaning/language definitely has!


Even absolute pitch means you have to use a reference frame or grid. You don't hear 438 Hz or 441Hz in frequency-cycles. You just do have your e.g. 440 Hz listening experience and that being automatically associated with a mental reference or mapping for expressing it to the word e.g. 'A1' - without you even knowing a number or that there are 440 cycles per second! It's rather the perception you can remember and you map this perception to a name...

That's why you will get into trouble when tapes or tracks are 'out of tune'. The further away from your 'personal' reference the more it will irritate you when reading the score at the same time.

You might be better off with a perfect 'relative' pitch!


As to your EDIT 2: Well they would have said 'A' if they had made their inner reference frame associate the perception of 415 Hz with the word 'A'...

If they hadn't learned about music-theory at all they would not even call it anything! They would not even know that they hear 'notes' ;-)

And for sure the very same person would today claim that it is an 'A#' if we played our 'A' at 440 Hz...

At least once in your life you have to establish your reference frame - translate your perception into meaning - language! I guess after some time it must be pretty unpleasant having to change such a frame to an other 'tuning'!

If the mapping changes because of a higher tuning (e.g. 440 Hz) your personal reference is different from the new one - your 'A' is a 'G#' for me and my 'A' is a 'A#' for you...

AP is all about perceiving/hearing/remembering certain frequencies and not about perceiving/hearing/remembering an 'A' or a 'C'...

Remembering the perception is god-given (only few people can do that) but he didn't provide you with an internal music-theory textbook by default! ;-)

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