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I was reading the Idiot's Guides: Music Theory (3rd edition), and I read:

The "standard" pitch today that most musicians tune to is the A above middle C, which equals 440 Hz; all the other notes are pitched in relation to this note. In earlier times and cultures, this note had other values—as low as 376 Hz in early eighteenth-centrury France, and as high as 560 Hz in early seventeenth-century Germany (referred to as North German church pitch).

The book doesn't really explain why today 440 Hz is considered the "standard pitch". Does playing a musical instrument tuned to 440 Hz offer any benefits over other frequencies?

  • While it's a consequence and not the cause, I think I learnt that now, with an accepted standard exists, instrument makers optimize the sound for this given tuning. For example, a violin will sound a tiny-bit better if tuned for the standard. (From pesonal experience, there may be some thruth in this). But if that's wrong, correct me. – Neinstein Jan 14 '18 at 18:38
  • The main point for a standard is to allow instruments to play together. Many instruments are difficult or impossible to tune far away from the pitch they are built for. It would, as one example, be impossible for me to tune my bassoon to 430 Hz or 450 Hz as it is built for 440Hz. The possible range is more like 436 to 4434. So If I wanted to play with a group that had decided on 430 Hz I would need to buy another instrument, possibly ending up with quite a few. ( And you might check the cost of bassoons to see why it would be difficult ). – ghellquist Jan 15 '18 at 6:23
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440 Hz is the standard that has been adopted.

Before it was, an instrument tuned in one country or even city was out of tune in another; confusion reigned. The short version of it is that countries got together in a conference and agreed on using 440 Hz as a standard.

Bach tuned at 415 Hz, which was the standard in those days and is still used by many orchestras for that reason.

Some say that you should tune at 432 Hz as it's the frequency of the earth, but this has been debunked, and I will not get into that here. It still makes for an interesting reflection. There is even a conspiracy theory involving the Nazis about 440 Hz.

So if you tune to a different frequency it's fine, but when you play with others that are tuned at 440 Hz you'll sound off.

For the whole story on 440 Hz and an interesting article, see this article.

  • And it is not the world-wide standard either – Mark C Jan 14 '18 at 21:32
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    I would be careful in saying that Bach tuned at 415Hz, we are not really sure. It is more probable that it really was varning. My guess for selecting 415Hz is most probably something quite different. That frequency comes out as an Ab on an instrument tuned to 440. Selecting that frequency would allow you to play on "modern" instrument, simply transposing a half tone down. – ghellquist Jan 15 '18 at 6:29
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440Hz is the tuning standard in most Western countries but not all. E.g. Germany tunes 442 up to 445 Hz. This drive to up the pitch comes in part from the strings, as the higher tuning standards creates a brighter sound (there are even stories of string players tampering with the go-to tuning forks in an ensemble so they can have their brighter sound). Of course this makes life more difficult for wind players and singers. Yet as the strings are the majority of a typical orchestra they seem to carry the most weight, as these developments were made.

So whilst it is an improvement to have a standard so musicians no longer have to carry around various instruments when travelling or bend over backwards to intonate, it is not as simple as it seems at first.

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    The 442/445 thing is more of a customary exaggeration than a different standard. If the standard were 500, players would probably push for 505 in practice and so on. Think of it like the strike zone in baseball: there is an official rule, but it's practically never obeyed. – Kilian Foth Jan 15 '18 at 8:30
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We can offer a history of tuning standards (see any textbook or wikipedia), and discuss how higher or lower pitch affects singers, string instruments and others, but the 'why' is more elusive. Just say that A=440hz is where we've settled at the moment. Some orchestras prefer 442Hz or 443Hz. I don't think any prefer lower - unless going right down to 415Hz for 'authentic' performances of Baroque music.

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There is a whole book about this - Bruce Haynes' 'History of Performing Pitch: The Story of "A" (https://www.amazon.com/History-Performing-Pitch-Bruce-Haynes/dp/0810841851)

There is also a huge amount of discussion about pitch and its close cousin temperament on HPSCHD-L, the mailing list for harpsichord players, builders and fans. Harpsichordists can get pretty damn passionate about tuning pitches and temperaments.

Archive here: https://list.uiowa.edu/scripts/wa.exe?A0=HPSCHD-L

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