Today we are using electronic tuners and know everything about frequencies but in the past, like before the 16th century, how could people tune their instruments? Did they tune them to specific frequencies? What reference did they have? Did they use some kind of instrument?

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    Note that many musicians still tune by ear today. It's arguably better than what you get with an electronic tuner, certainly on instruments that aren't really equal-tempered. – leftaroundabout Mar 25 '17 at 22:42
  • I tune with the ear too but usually I need a reference to find the 'real' E for example. If I don't have a reference, every string is tuned perfectly relatively to each other but when I try to jam with a backing track for example I might be completely out of tune. – papakias Mar 26 '17 at 0:42

Never mind the 16th C., even in the 1960s, reference points were not considered necessary by some recording bands, particularly those with only guitars and basses to go with drums! As long as one of the guitars was in tune with itself, the others used that as a datum point.

Back in the 16th C., there was not a great deal of travel involved with musicians; making music was parochial, so the need for an industry standard such as we rely on nowadays wasn't needed. With easily tuneable (?!) instruments, i.e. lutes, as long as they were in tune with other no-so-easily tuneable instruments, it wasn't really an issue. And tuning was such that some instruments sounded better in one key (no 12EDO yet).

Tuning forks, as already mentioned, were around from the beginning of the 1700s, so there was no 'official' datum point anyway at a time previous.

Back in the '60s, I used to drop a house key on a hard surface, which gave me a reference to keep my guitar in tune, and I guess similar ideas were used by instrumentalists who were fastidious enough to keep their instruments on pitch.

So, basically, everyone would, as previously said, tune to whatever instrument sounded right, but was the most difficult to alter anyway,.

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    I once saw a guitarist pull out a set of pitch pipes & blow an E. Everybody else just stared at him as though he'd suggested they all play naked that night. – Tetsujin Mar 25 '17 at 11:55
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    @Tetsujin - nearly 60 yrs ago, I had pitchpipes with my first guitar. They were not in tune... – Tim Mar 25 '17 at 12:00
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    I wish comments would simply let me type 'LOL' – Tetsujin Mar 25 '17 at 12:01
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    @Tetsujin - LOL – Tim Mar 25 '17 at 12:04
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    @JörgWMittag - as a bass player, amongst other things, I tend to leave my final tuning till everyone else is happy. I wouldn't want them tuning to me - the bass notes are sufficiently low enough to be out slightly, and not many would notice. In orchestras, the oboe is used as reference, partly as it's piercing, partly because it can be tuned, but it's best left (my words). A question exists here about that. Of course, if a piano or organ is involved, it should be at concert pitch, but in any case, everyone tunes to it. Even, maybe, the oboe! – Tim Mar 25 '17 at 18:09

In the case of the lute, a common practice was apparently to "tune the treble string as high as it will go without breaking, then tune the remaining strings in accordance with the first." (source). This of course depends on the diameter of the string, the construction of the (gut) string and the size of the lute. Lutes were made in fairly well standardized sizes (source), which suggests that the instruments were not necessarily tuned to any reference pitch, but just so the top string (on which a lot of the melody is played) sounds good and the rest of the strings tuned to match (in some particular temperament). Presumably a group of players would tune according to the top string of all the instruments that was closes to breaking? [caveat: I am not an expert on this topic!]

ETA: Lute players (especially baroque lute) spend half their lives tuning their lute, and the other half playing out of tune ;o)

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    Must have been a good market for top strings for the lute.I did the same with rulers at school, but they just broke before we knew how far they'd bend! – Tim Mar 25 '17 at 17:12
  • Indeed, I have nylon top strings on most of my lutes (I have a gut string on my 7 course lute, but they don't last long!) Perhaps that is why rulers often come in a set with protractors so you can measure how far is too far? ;o) – Dikran Marsupial Mar 25 '17 at 17:22
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    And of couse, 16thC was a little before plastic or nylon strings! – Tim Mar 25 '17 at 17:28
  • Actually, all other things being equal, the breaking pitch of a string doesn't depend on its diameter, only on its makeup and length. – Scott Wallace Mar 25 '17 at 20:35
  • @ScottWallace under ideal circumstances this is correct, but in reality thicker strings break faster at the bridge if tuned to the same pitch as thinner strings, because the bending angle requires more material flexing. – leftaroundabout Mar 25 '17 at 22:47

Tuning forks? References varied a lot locally, but of course the local church organ would be one point of reference. But organ builders/tuners would be carrying around their own references.

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    Tuning forks were not around till the beginning of the next century but one - 1711. Pitch forks, yes, but, hay, that's different. – Tim Mar 25 '17 at 12:03

I know you asked about prior to the 16th century, but...

I've never known a rock band that carried a tuning fork.

Right up to the 1970s you would simply tune to 'whoever sounded about right already' unless there was some external reference like a piano in the building - & whether that was right or not was still questionable.

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    I've seen rock bands that didn't even tune... – Tim Mar 25 '17 at 11:52
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    The great thing about being tone-deaf is that untuned instruments don't sound bad. – Lee White Mar 25 '17 at 17:22

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