An orchestra is seated on stage, almost ready to begin the concert. The lead oboist plays a single note, followed by her section, then the remainder of the orchestra, who matches that note or plays one of a handful of others. The musicians then tune their instruments based on the oboe’s note, and when they all match, the maestro is free to begin the show. But how did the oboist decide that her instrument was in tune?
Before taking the stage, the oboist in our example would have tuned her instrument to the note A above middle C, which is generally set at 440 Hz (vibrations per second). A440, also called Stuttgart pitch, is now the international standard for tuning all common Western instruments. It was recognized by the International Organization for Standards (ISO) as ISO 16 in 1976.
Prior to the 19th century, tuning methods varied by location. In many cases pitch was set by any instruments used that could not be easily tuned “on the fly”, such as a pipe organ. Particular tuning forks, which were invented to give musicians a fixed note to tune to quickly, would also vary, since early crafters lacked the scientific equipment necessary to produce them with consistent pitch. For example, Beethoven is thought to have owned a tuning for set to A455, and Handel used one set to A422, which is effectively Ab instead of A.
In 1859, the French government established the first legal standard for an A at 435 Hz. This tuning proved quite popular, and was even included in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. Lower pitches were especially popular among singers, who struggled to keep up with higher values. The Stuttgart pitch of A440 was first proposed by a conference of physicists in 1839, and became gradually more widespread, especially in the English speaking world, until its adoption by the ISO in 1955. Initially the Stuttgart Conference considered 439, but was ultimately rejected since 439 is a prime number and therefore more difficult to work with.
Today, the vast majority of Western instruments are set to A440 Hz, though some performers prefer other pitches for various reasons. Baroque music ensembles sometimes use lower pitches to better represent the preferences of musicians from that era. In Cuba, orchestras have generally preferred A436 Hz to combat scarcity, since it requires lower string tension, resulting in less string wear over time.
Does your instrument sound a little funny? Interested in learning more about tuning? Contact Thompson Tutoring for music lessons today!