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There are essentially two ways to tune an instrument (that is tuneable): you can assume that one of the pitches it makes is in tune and then tune the rest of the instrument to the pitch that is in tune OR you can tune all that is tuneable to an exterior reference pitch. I'll call the former relative tuning and the latter absolute tuning, since I'm not sure of the proper terms.

How did musicians do absolute tuning in the Middle Ages - and subsequent times - BEFORE the advent of strobotuners, digital tuners and the like?

For instance, if Beethoven wrote a new piece and said A=440 in the sheet music, how would musicians in the orchestra that were going to play it get their instruments tuned so that A was 440 Hertz?

Offhand, I can only think of two plausible methods: church bells and tuning forks. But even those seem potentially problematic. I'm not sure when the tuning fork was invented, let alone how manufacturers made sure they were accurate, so it may not have arrived on the scene until relatively recently. Church bells would also have issues. Would all church bells in all cities be the same pitch? I see no compelling reason to believe they would be.

I'm at a loss to think of any other sound source that would have been accessible and that MIGHT have a reliable pitch in centuries past.

If tuning forks are a recent invention and church bells are typically different pitches - and especially if the church bell's pitch was unknown - it would seem very likely that performances of a piece of music would sound quite different in each place they were played given that the tuning might vary considerably. Did our ancestors simply live with that or did they have a clever solution?

  • Organ pipes produce a pitch which is determined almost entirely by the length, diameter, and ambient temperature. Aside from temperature control, those traits were easily measurable, and even temperature could be estimated. – supercat Oct 22 '18 at 2:53
  • Beethoven wouldn't have specified the pitch A as anything particular, as the A at his time was between 440Hz and 430.5Hz. It would depend where in Europe you were, and the ambient temperature at the time - brass instruments particularly were/are affected by temperature change. So Beethoven would probably have put up with whatever he was given. Not that he heard it anyway... – Tim Oct 22 '18 at 15:40
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There is a bit of confusion in the original question regarding which time period it asks about.

Often, the middle ages are considered to be from the 5th to the 15th century (see for example Wikipedia ). But Beethoven, as mentioned in the question, were born 1770.

In early ages, some instruments were fixed in pitch and others not. As example most wind instruments were fixed while string instruments by design could be tuned. So if a wind instrument and a string instrument would play together the choice of reference would be the wind instrument. So as example we take a crumhorn and a lute the lute would be tuned to the crumhorn (more or less, the crumhorn can be tuned slightly by modifying the read).

If several fixed pitch instruments wanted to play together it could become difficult unless they used the same reference. In each region (or country) often the instruments came from the same maker or from makers working together so a regional pitch standard developed. As the pitch of wind instruments is dependant on their length and the distance between holes in turn sets the tuning of different tones, the workshops where they were made would have benchmark or master models, perhaps several different for for different regions.

Without the need to tune a string instrument to wind instruments you might select any other reference. A singer might use his/her voice, you get a feel for the correct tension of the springs and so on.

Towards the end of the medieval period music started to be performed in churches using pipe organs. The pipes had fixed pitch, you might imagine trying to change the pitch of a few hundred pipes to accommodate. But there still was no general standard across the world, this would come much later. So each region, or even each church in a city, would have its own tuning. It is described that when other wind instruments started to be used together with the pipe organ, these were often owned by the church and bought as sets.

The original question mentions Beethoven. This is at a much later date where technology has advanced quite a lot. Making of musical instruments starts to become an industry. Now there are quite a few pitch reference "gadgets" available. In an orchestral setting all instruments would be tuned to the instrument with least variability. When used, the pipe organ would be one example, the piano another, using the fixed pitched oboe and so on. The tuning fork is available. At this time, the standard tuning is not universal.

We find, well into the beginning of the 20th century several different tuning standards used in different contexts, often in different countries. If you venture into buying older instruments, say before 1930, you have to be aware that they may come in "low pitch" or "high pitch". Some instruments came with exchangeable middle parts, allowing a traveling musician to adapt to the local pitch standard.

  • Thank you, ghellquist. I'm not much of a classical music guy and thought Beethoven was earlier than he was, I probably should have said Bach or someone even earlier. Thanks for your explanation of how tuning was done over the years. I imagine it was a real nightmare for musicians to tune fixed instruments in the days before a reliable portable sounds source was at hand! – Henry Oct 29 '18 at 20:29
  • @Henry: most fixed tuning instruments can actually be tuned slightly in order to work together. You might be able slide a part out more or less (check for example a flute) or scrape the reeds slightly differently (say oboe or bassoon). Most wind instruments allow a musician to intonate most tones slightly up or down as well in order to play together. – ghellquist Oct 30 '18 at 18:50
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I don't think there was a need for 'absolute tuning' at the time. Music was fairly parochial, with musicians travelling small distances, generally. Each town and certainly each country had there own reference, as already mentioned, and there were differences.

The organ, again as mentioned, was the one instrument that stayed put, and churches were a good place for performances, so musos could tune to each other using that as a datum point. And any resident piano would be in tune with itself, so that would have to be the reference point, used in the performance, or not. But, generally, as long as the instruments were in tune with each other, and roughly at the current 'concert pitch', that would be good enough. Heck, even in the 1960s, bands would record after all tuning to the guitar that they thought was closest to 'in tune'! Try playing along to early Kinks, while tuned to A=440Hz!

Tuning forks were available from the early 18th century, but I wouldn't be surprised if musos had their own portable 'tuner' in the form of something that produced a particular pitch - a whistle, a small bell, a tine. I've mentioned before that in the '60s, I used my front door key, which was my ref. point when away from any other instrument, to keep my guitar in tune properly. (No jokes about the singer who couldn't find the key, please!) Even then, playing along to pop on the radio, I had to re-tune 1/2 a semitone for some numbers!

Just re-read your question, and my answer so far is tangential.

Almost every instrument is and was tuned 'to itself' In other words, once a note on a piano is where the tuner wants, the others, gradually, are tuned to match that. Same with guitar, violin, etc. You may well be thinking in terms of - well, when I use my guitar tuner, I tune each string separately - no reference between them. That's down to the vagaries of guitar tuners. I guess that most violinists will still tune in 5ths, listening to that 'hard' sound between strings, once the legendary A is correct. I prefer to tune guitar and bass from one reference point, not wanting to rely on tuners. Heck, if I can't tune my own instruments up, I really shouldn't have them round my neck! (Except when a silent check is needed at a gig). The sax family and brass instruments, when played frequently, will only need a small tweak of the whole instrument for tuning purposes

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The tuning fork was invented around 1711 , see Wikipedia and Beethoven had one (see this blog). Note that at that time the reference pitch was still 435 Hz. As I understand, the national offices of weights and measures provided the service of calibration.

The middle ages is a different topic but may precede even tuned church bells, so I'm not sure, whether that is addressed in your question.

  • Nice blog post including a SoundCloud recording of Beethoven's tuning fork being struck! – Michael Curtis Oct 22 '18 at 14:58
  • I didn't realize the tuning fork went back that far! I thought it was a much more recent innovation. Mind you, I wonder how reliable they were. Would two tuning forks render exactly the same pitch, even if made by the same person/company? I would hope so but I'd hate to bet my life on it ;-) – Henry Oct 29 '18 at 20:31
  • @Michael Curtis - I read an anecdote once from a woman who worked in a book store. A customer said "Do you have books on tape? The kind where the author reads their own book?". The clerk assured her they did. "Great! Then show me where your Shakespeare tapes are!" :-) – Henry Oct 29 '18 at 20:32
  • @Henry Being a fork you can simply grind the prongs (at least if tone is too low). Also you can use one fork to ensure the other is in tune with it. – guidot Oct 29 '18 at 20:50
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My guess, which is only a guess but seems plausible, is that the first tuning standard was the instrumentalist's own voice. Consider a singer like Homer or King David who accompanies his own singing with a harp or lyre. He will know when the instrument is too high or too low because the range of the song will not feel right when he sings it, and he knows that there is a tuning that produces the best sound for his voice, with the low notes not too low and the high notes not too high. He probably sang his lowest good note as a reference pitch.

When you start making trumpets and other instruments to play together, you will need a better reference standard. I know (from Wikipedia) that pitch pipes were used in the 18th century and probably earlier, and I'm guessing much earlier. You can specify the construction of a cylindrical pipe of a certain length and be sure that if it is made to that exact length it will give a particular pitch. (See supercat's note above.)

The references I've looked at indicate that in Baroque times, each city or region had a pitch standard that most of the organs were tuned to, even though different regions had different standards. So organ builders had some form of portable pitch device, probably a reference pipe.

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The relative/absolute part of the question seems to be something that can be researched as the other answers suggest: tuning forks, pitch pipes, etc.

But the part about Hertz surely has a clear historical break point. For a quick reference I looked here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hertz#History. That measure was established around 1930. That term/measure wouldn't have been used before modern times.

  • Interesting. If Hertz only were 'invented' in 1930. what reference was used by tuning fork makers? There must have been other ways of establishing particular frequencies, just not measured in Hz. One problem was (and still is!) that concert A wasn't constant throughout the musical world. – Tim Oct 22 '18 at 15:31
  • Tim, according to @guidot's linked blog post Beethoven's tuning fork is pitched to 455.4 Hz, also the wiki about tuning forks states various frequencies. I don't really know, but it seems folks tried to standardize to particular objects - sort of like the 'kilo of the archive' in France - until Hertz offered an objective/scientific measure. – Michael Curtis Oct 22 '18 at 16:14
  • That's very odd. In an earlier comment, I said at that time, A was anywhere between 430.5 Hz and 440Hz, so 455.4Hz is really pushing it. Maybe they only played in the Winter, outside...(did I go the right way?) – Tim Oct 22 '18 at 16:23

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