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When looking at percussion instruments, I noticed that the default tuning for most companies is A=442 for tuned percussion (vibes, marimba, tubular bells, etc…). I wonder if there is a reason for that, since the usual tuning is A=440. My best guess that that some of the major manufacturers are Japanese, where A=442 is much more common than in the US, but I don't suspect that. My alternative hypothesis is that percussion is deliberately tuned sharp to help cut through large wind or string ensembles.

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From: http://www.vibesworkshop.com/forum/tuning-vibraphone-bars-442hz-440hz/karl-ivar/041610

This is an interesting topic and one that definitely matters to professional level vibraphone players. I have struggled with this for decades. In the USA 440 is the norm, in Europe and Japan and South America it is 442, although I run into instances of 440 even in Europe sometimes. Then there is 443, which sometimes is the norm in certain places (Berlin concert halls). For a reason I can only guess, Musser started tuning their instruments to 442 about 20 years ago. I suppose it was because the rest of the world was requesting 442, and even in the USA, orchestras tend to use 442. That leaves the lowly club date musician and jazz band musician with an instrument that is out of tune with the pianos in clubs and other venues they are likely to play.

So it seems like 440 is less common than we might think and therefore the 442 tuning has the largest market of buyers. Plus it seems that some instruments can be lowered to 440 Hz tuning.

  • Yep, 440 is the U.S. standard, 442 is the European standard. Note that the above quote is from Gary Burton himself. Here's the anchor link to his specific comment: vibesworkshop.com/comment/24397#comment-24397 – jaybrau Dec 29 '15 at 15:15
  • Oh interesting. I was like "Who is Gary Burton?", since I really don't follow Jazz at all. Then I went to his Wikipedia page and realized I took an online course from him through Berklee College of Music. – Todd Wilcox Dec 29 '15 at 15:19
  • I don't know of any keyboard percussion instruments that can change tuning without new bars, though I do know you can custom-order a 440-tuned instrument without any problems. – cjm Dec 29 '15 at 17:39
  • @cjm Seems like you can custom order just 440 bars also if you have already purchased a whole instrument with 442 bars, as long as the relevant resonator system isn't too narrow in frequency. But I get the impression that the bars could possibly have weight added to them to lower their frequency a bit. Like tuning an electric piano. – Todd Wilcox Dec 29 '15 at 17:41
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I bought a set of Adams vibes and an Adams 4.3 marimba for my school district, both of which I sent to Bill Youhass at Fall Creek Marimba to retune to 440. When they came back, they absolutely sang. (Stefon Harris actually played on both of these at a concert in North Creek NY)

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    This answer doesn't appear to address the question. If you can edit it to explain why many percussion instruments are tuned to A=442, it might do better. – General Nuisance Jan 23 '17 at 7:01
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I don't know much about percussion instruments purely, but if the tuning is a higher Hertz than normal (oscillations per second) then it means we are compensating for some sort of effect. Perhaps we are compensating for an atmospheric effect, or the effect of the resonant body of the instrument. Tuning a drum to 442 would make it slightly sharper than the rest of the band, if everyone was tuned to 440 or 432. If we measure the temperature in the room and find that it's colder than normal, instruments will sound sharper, and typically in a hot room they will sound flatter. When a drum is tightly taught, it will typically loosen over time. So if you tuned it to 440Hz, over the course of maybe 8 months to a year of banging on it everyday it would become 436 or 435. If you overshoot this when you tune it up, it'll middle-in on 438..440 ish. It really depends a lot on the size of drum and stuff, but I think this is predominantly why .. longevity of pitch accuracy. Really, in an ensemble everything should be tuned together and cross-tuned (overlap checks), so it's not really that important that a drum is whatever, as long as it sounds good with the rest of the band. Maybe someone knows for certain the right answer, these are just some thoughts that may help.

  • I was asking more about marimbas and vibraphones and the like, rather than drums. Drums do go flat over time without tuning from normal playing and can be easily retuned. Mallet percussion is typically more like an organ: tuned at the factory. – cjm Dec 29 '15 at 6:31
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    the question was about non-tunable percussion instruments – Carl Witthoft Dec 29 '15 at 11:28
  • @cjm Note that electronic tonewheel organs can be re-pitched by adjusting the tonewheel rotation speed, but all that can do is adjust the whole instrument from A=440 Hz to A=442 Hz, for example. Tuning between different notes would probably require replacement of individual tonewheels. Other electronic organs (e.g., solid state) are likely to be very tunable, along the lines of synthesizers. Pitched idiophonic percussion might be the second-least "field tunable" instruments around, after pipe organs. – Todd Wilcox Dec 29 '15 at 17:59
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    This was edited recently to swap 'flat' and 'sharp'. Be aware that percussion behaves differently to wind when it comes to temperature. I have reverted the edit, as I believe it was incorrect. – endorph Apr 21 '17 at 8:31
  • @CarlWitthoft Aha, that makes sense! Well, even if the instrument is non-tunable, banging on it will fling the pitch out of whack for a second, so I must stick with my original answer, "longevity of pitch accuracy" – sova Apr 23 '17 at 17:56

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