Listening to period performance if you have perfect/absolute pitch

December 3, 2006 at 08:30 PM · My orchestra is playing the Messiah today, and my stand partner, to prepare, was playing along with a CD of the piece. She remarked to me that the CD sounded about a half or full tone too low. It occurred to me that she was probably playing along with a CD of a period performance/instrument group, and sure enough, it turned out to be Academy of Ancient Music. My assumption is that that group tuned to A - 415. However, this raised an interesting question: how do people with perfect/absolute pitch react when they hear period performance/instrument musicians play tuned at A - 415? Is it jarring or annoying? Any of you folks out there with perfect/absolute pitch care to respond.

Replies (76)

December 3, 2006 at 08:46 PM · I occasionally play at A415 and while switching back and forth between A440 & A415 is not easy, I find that the big difference in tone color between my baroque & modern violins keeps it from getting too confusing. I associate the lower tuning with the particular timber of a

baroque instrument.

December 3, 2006 at 10:03 PM · I am playing a Messiah tonight too!

I have a hard time listening to period recordings. I wish I didn't, because players like Manze, Podger, etc., are doing really interesting and wonderful things, but it is just too difficult for me.

When I was fourteen, I played the Bach Double with my teacher at her church, and due to the winter weather, the organ had gone a half-step flat. I played in tune fine, but during the whole performance I had to transpose what I was hearing. It is a little tricky to articulate, but the notes I was hearing at that performance were "transposed" through my head into D-flat minor...very weird.

On the flip side of things, imagine my suprise when the first time I sight-read Beethoven's 'Pastorale', and discovered it was not in F# Major! I had listened to my Mom and Dad's Szell/Cleveland recording for years, and I guess the record speed, or recording speed, was off.

And on a lark, I just tried playing with the 415 A, and I can't do it! Way too funky! My hand kept creeping up. Guido, my violin, sounded really resonant though.

December 4, 2006 at 02:35 AM · I personally like them better; normal performances seem a little too bright after listening to a period one, I find

December 4, 2006 at 02:56 AM · I am flummoxed not by period recordings, but rather by you "absolutists."

What do you do when it is *between* steps?! That's an everyday occurrence!

December 4, 2006 at 06:18 AM · I don't have absolute pitch, at least not very well, and I definitely didn't a few years ago, so I have a funny story about how I discovered Baroque tuning. I must have been 11 or so, and I was working on the Bach a minor. I got a new recording of it, Tafelmusik or some other period-performance group. I kind of liked it, and on a whim I decided to try playing along with the recording.....big surprise.....

December 4, 2006 at 07:49 AM · having perfect pitch and listening to these performances can be very jarring at first. Even when I put in Podger's recording of Bach I had to really adjust. I can't listen to Quarta's Paganini 1, which is tuned up. It's just too strange.

December 4, 2006 at 10:10 PM · Perfect pitch is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. It couldn't exist until there was machinery to assign oscillations to the lettering system we use. Therefore, everybody used to use relative pitch. I don't have perfect pitch, though I can grab pretty close to an A440 out of the air, from tonal memory and practice. I think there's a lot to be said for people with perfect pitch working on ways to turn it off at need. I had a college friend talk about teaching himself to do this. After all, the scale currently used in Western music and the assigned numbers are very, very limiting. Ameican fiddlers used other scales and tonalities into the early to mid-1900's, and there's jazz, blues, Cajun, American Indian and the music of many Eastern cultures just for starters. I read an interesting research about the how church organs in Europe vary, and that from north to south there's a gradual sharping of pitch-centers. Interesting. Sue

December 5, 2006 at 01:37 AM · Sue:

Have you watched "Shulze gets the Blues" yet? (Cajon fiddling in the last 15 minutes or so)

December 5, 2006 at 01:18 PM · Hi,

I am lucky. I don't have perfect pitch so varying A's don't bother me. I guess it must be the gift of a disadvantage. However, with widly fluctating As these days between performance practice performances and As ranging from 440 to 445 between various orchestras, it is almost good that I don't have a fixed sense of inner pitch and rather can listen and adapt to resonance.


P.S. I too can sing an A440 out of the air, but I think that is more from repetition than anything else.

December 5, 2006 at 02:00 PM · Please someone correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Dorothy Delay say that everyone has perfect pitch. Some just remember it longer..?

December 5, 2006 at 02:16 PM · Last year I played a choral concert where we tuned our A string down to a true G natural. After a few minutes of adjustment I loved the added resonance - but my stand partner, who has perfect pitch made mistake after mistake - and she is usually flawless. She simply couldn't get her fingers to adjust to the wrong notes coming from her violin - she was a nervous wreck for the whole series.

December 5, 2006 at 02:25 PM · Perfect pitch can cause some interesting problems. A Metropolitan Opera singer of the 40's Stella Roman had perfect pitch. She was singing Aida one night and didn't bother to listen to the orchrstra which had tuned almost a halftone flat. She went out onstage and sang all of Act 1 a half step sharp since she was "in tune." Fortunately I've never had that problem.

December 5, 2006 at 02:39 PM · I think the fixed sense of pitch should be called fixed or absolute pitch, not perfect pitch.

I have a perfect sense of pitch, one relative to the other, but I don't care what the frequency is of any particular note.

This absolute pitch thing seems very bizarre to me. I can't imagine having it!

December 5, 2006 at 04:10 PM · Here is the response of my brother's girlfriend who has perfect/absolute pitch (which, interestingly, she lost for awhile after her mother was killed in the World Trade Center):

"Yeah, it's jarring, so is Asian music that uses 1/4 tones. So are out of tune pianos. I do some major musical cognitive restructuring to tolerate such performances, if I can't avoid them."

December 5, 2006 at 04:14 PM · Tom that is interesting (and sorry to hear of the loss).

See, I don't seek to avoid 1/4 tone etc music; rather, I seek it out, embrace it, and feel it. But not only do I notice out of tune pianos, I abhor them (out of tune with themselves, not with some arbitrary pitch standard). So that is yet one more reason to *not* want absolute pitch!

December 6, 2006 at 12:50 AM · I have absolute pitch. But listening period performances don't bother me. Playing is another question.

March 31, 2008 at 01:50 AM · I've never tried playing, but listening doesn't bother me. Notating it in ear training class, however, is a completely different matter.

March 31, 2008 at 02:49 AM · I'm not bothered by it at all I find it kind of fascinating to hear the different colors in period performances. It feels new and wonderful.

What I find annoying is people with perfect pitch who point out every pitch they hear "oh my God that street lamp is buzzing in B-flat but it's kinda like between B-flat and B how annoying!"

March 31, 2008 at 02:57 AM · I find it enjoyable.

My pitch isn't "perfect", it is ingrained-i.e. my ear can hear and place anything in the violins range.

I find it most enjoyable because period tuning softens the sound of the dreadful e-string that so many violin suffer from.

March 31, 2008 at 03:25 AM · it has no effect on me at all.

March 31, 2008 at 06:06 AM · I only notice if I'm familiar with the piece, and even then, I just try to pretend it's in a different key.

Pianos make me nuts, though.

Daniel Levitin, the neuroscientist who wrote This Is Your Brain on Music, tells of an experiment that showed even non-musicians can develop perfect or absolute pitch. The researchers assigned the notes arbitrary names like 'Fred' and 'Ethel.'

March 31, 2008 at 01:20 PM · Well, I would not say that I have perfect pitch. When I was young every note had a very distinct color and I could tell one from another quite easily, but this seems to have been lost in the intervening years, presumably due to a prolonged absence from the music scene. Regardless, listening to period performances is a bit jarring, but not as much as hearing a modern one played out of tune! It is a curious thing, though that in my own playing it is much easier for me to pick out flaws in intonation when I record, as opposed to when the violin is under my ear. I assign this to the fact that I play Eudoxa gut strings, and due to the very strong presence of overtones with these strings, in which the fundamental seems to get lost to some extent (more so on some notes than others). Once the sound has ventured out a distance from the instrument, things have blended a bit and this effect is radically diminished. Indeed the sound carries quite well and is wonderful from afar, but it can take some getting used to when heard under the ear. I suppose that were I playing a priceless del Gesu or Stradivari, and using a much better bow, I might find the situation less problematic, but even so I find gut to be terribly rewarding in so many ways and I just cannot seem to bring myself to abandon gut strings. In my opinion, gut strings have the ability to play a huge role in the development of an individual’s sound (for better or worse!). This may seem strange, but I think we have lost a portion of this in today’s ‘world of the virtuoso’, the uniqueness of the individual. Too strong an emphasis has been placed upon perfection, which tends to wash away or dilute the character of the individual. Some (very few, in my opinion) are able to fuse the two, however for the rest of us I think we need to be careful. After all, we’re human, not machine! I suppose I have drifted far from the premise of this thread, and I apologize, but some of what others have mentioned above hints at this as well.

March 31, 2008 at 05:27 PM · A=415

You must be mad!

March 31, 2008 at 08:01 PM · Thanks to whomever resurrected this old thread that I started.

Gareth - A-415 is typical of the period performance folks for reasons of historical accuracy. I refer to them as the "A-415 crowd," but this is one of the central tenets of their practice.

March 31, 2008 at 08:48 PM · For me, this has always been a bit odd. I played baroque violin quite intensively for about five years and learned to transpose on the spot to accommodate my somewhat perfect pitch. Listening to A415 recordings, I'm usually able to hear pieces in A,G,D major/minor as being in A,G,D at 415, but pieces in F, B flat, E flat etc. will always sound like they're in E, A, D at 440. Very odd, and rather confusing. It's got something to do with the resonances of the open strings, but I've basically stopped trying to analyse what my ear does and why...

March 31, 2008 at 08:56 PM · Listening to 415 performances isn't a problem. I just hear them in a different key. Playing an instrument tuned to 415 also isn't a long as I'm not reading music at the same time.

I played B flat trumpet in the middle school band, because the school orchestra was so horrible that I didn't want to be associated with it. :-( Sight reading was laborious (and I was terrible at it) because the only way I could do it was by telling myself with each note,

"OK, it says A, so I play a G."

After a few times through, I'd usually learn a piece by ear and wouldn't look at the music any more. Then everything was fine. :-)

March 31, 2008 at 09:07 PM · It sounds either more relaxing or more depressing, one or the other.

April 1, 2008 at 12:26 PM · Saw a show last night called "Artists' Table" and it was Jacques Pepin cooking with Itzhak Perlman. They were discussing ideas that related to both music and food and it was a very interesting show that combined my 2 favorite things - music and cooking!

All was going well until Itzhak started talking about early music performance practice. He said he HATES the sound of no vibrato and the tuning down of instruments and he thinks it's a ridiculous notion altogether to try and play authentically. "I am a modern musician, and I think Mozart would have loved to listen to his music played by a modern orchestra so I don't bother with that stuff."

April 1, 2008 at 01:22 PM · I strongly agree with Perlman!

April 1, 2008 at 01:43 PM · I agree with the second half of what Perlman said but not the first. Why can't we just love hearing Mozart played by a modern orchestra and stop there, without having to hate something?

April 1, 2008 at 01:46 PM · I disagree with the 1st half completely of what Perlmann said.



There is NO one individual thing I like more out of a violin than a violin that doesn't NEED vibrato to sound warm and sweet (and complex). NOTHING.

Afterall, in a symphony-wind players get that kind of tone a regular basis and NEVER use the Wall-To-Wall vibrato technique violinists do. The conductor asks for a "warm" tone and all the strings take that as an order to use the vibrato. It is bizarre.


Oh, well-he is the soloist-and I'm little old me.

April 1, 2008 at 02:02 PM · I'm actually in favor of less vibrato in many orchestras. It's a difficult thing to get sixteen violinists to match, and if you don't it can sound ridiculous.

April 1, 2008 at 02:16 PM · Amen to what Karen said. I think both the A-415 crowd and the Perlman/Zukerman crowd have something to learn from each other about Mozart or whomever.

April 1, 2008 at 02:39 PM · "doesn't NEED vibrato to sound warm and sweet (and complex)"

can anyone refer me to a source so that i can see/hear it for myself?

heifetz is out.

some old russian school players do a plain note once in a while, sometimes often enough. what does a plain note convey that a vibrato note cannot? add color? showing a calculated human maneuver over a natural development? how to judge not to overdo it? is there a difference between excessive vibrato vs excessive plain note? if excessive vibrato is not natural, how about excessive plain noting? how to weigh interesting sounding vs good tasting? :)

if violin sound emulates human singing.. do opera singers hold onto plain notes on purpose? love to see that!

also, perlman's colloquial use of HATES should come as no surprise to native english speakers. knowing him, he probably said with a big smile as he savors some sauce...

calm down people.

April 1, 2008 at 02:28 PM · I too, tend to believe that Mozart (and other baroque/classical period composers) might have enjoyed their pieces being played in a modern style, including arrangements for jazz or electronic performances

However, that shouldn't mean that we have to dismiss the original style of performance as no longer valid, let alone something to hate.

Likewise, even if Mozart wouldn't have enjoyed a modern style performance of his music, that shouldn't mean performances in a modern style are invalid.

Why can't we just agree that we are lucky to have choices?! How boring would the world be without choices?!

April 1, 2008 at 02:53 PM · Al - when Zukerman says period performance is "rubbish" he is not saying it in a kidding manner. He means it. I have no reason to think that Perlman thinks any differently. They come from the same era and schooling.

April 1, 2008 at 03:04 PM · [digression beware]


It entirely depends on context-vibrato was originally an ornament, not a general-purpose way of (symphonic) playing. Symphony players are most prone to use vibrato as a cure-all for a desired "warm tone". You look and the strings are shaking their hands like a 10.0 earthquake, and the winds have a nice singing tone above that is quite pure.

Therein lies my gripe, that one should not need vibrato to get a singing lucious warm tone. The winds always do it in orchestra solos, why can't we or don't we? Although, in our solo playing we tend to be much more sensitive about such things.

The best examples I can think of, off hand, are of course Baroque recordings off hand-such as the solo Bach by Tetzlaff.

My own violin is the way I speak-and that is part of why I flattened by bank accounts for it.

As far as overdone vibrato-just about any Baroque/early classical work recording done pre~1970 or so is that way, with the performer(s) using the 1/2 step side vibrato non-stop on everything....and the music sounding like heavy-handed Wagnerian opera more than Bach or Corelli etc. It sounds burdened and heavy and does ANYTHING but dance.

It has only been in the last 20-30 years that there has been scholarly work done on musical and performance styles and norms in Baroque (and early) music. That Heifetz and others did what they did is not suprising-they lived and played before scholarly research was done into why and *how* was vibrato used, what *makes* a Corrente different from a Courante-why and how are they played differently, and why trills typically start from above in the Baroque and so on.

There really is no such thing as a "plain note", the idea being you don't need vibrato to carry through and add interest to a musical line. You can (should) be able to shape a phrase without it. Vibrato and other ornaments serve as rhetorical emphasis in early music--because notions of rhetoric prevade the music,

You don't need to play A415 and not use vibrato to play solo Bach. But if you want to portray to your audience *what* a Gavotte or Sarabande or what have you is to the audience-you need to present to them a dance. IMHO, many of the greats of yore presented the solo Bach as GREAT virtuostic works for the solo violin-but I seldom feel anything like a dance. You hear fantastic virtuosity etc but I don't necessarily hear a dance.

April 1, 2008 at 02:57 PM · "if violin sound emulates human singing.. do opera singers hold onto plain notes on purpose? love to see that!"

Please get a hold of a recording of Andreas Scholl or any other counter tenor worth his salt. The exquisiteness of the human voice standing still is unconquerable even by the violin. That's my personal opinion, which I hope is as valid as Perlman's if not as influential.

April 1, 2008 at 03:16 PM · tom, thanks, in what way do they think it is "rubbish" i wonder...the interpretation? the sound effect? etc

marc, great post, very much on topic:):):)

i am not a musician, but am aware we all live in modern times, with modern instrumentation (strings, longer neck, etc), with modern thought processing, with exposure to wider genres of music to develop taste and style and possibly more importantly, our teacher's taste and style. how to draw the line between looking at the past with modern point of view vs looking at the past by tranporting our mindset to the past? do we prefer driving an original ford model T or a lexus or something else of our fancy?

those who enjoy lexus probably HATE early models:) and i am sure ford lovers are not thrilled and cry foul.

hi marina, just saw your post. will check out if i have a chance. my bias is still that human singing voice, not coached, comes out of the vocal cord with a natural vibrato. my personal preference? a tasteful use of vibrato sounds the best!

April 1, 2008 at 03:02 PM · Marc I agree and would be interested in what the difference is between a courante and corrente in your opinion.

My problem with the word 415-club is that it is condescending. I realize that there are many authenticists who stand by a certain way of playing, but I have issues with early music performers being grouped in a category that includes these vague and trivial things:

- A is 415

- no vibrato

- use open strings as much as possible

- small orchestras

- white noise

Not using vibrato at all is just as ridiculous as using vibrato all the time yet there are camps of thought set up in both beliefs. I do not agree with Perlman at all about his preference. But I do agree that we are all modern performers and I find that putting on a well-researched performance is quite modern.

April 1, 2008 at 03:17 PM · Al,

Opera is opera. All the chant and motet recordings I've heard during my coursework are almost exclusively "straight" tones, yet still manage to sound quite beautiful.

If vibrato is natural, then a lot of churchgoers, children, light jazz groups, and even some colleagues of mine in the music ed program are singing in a highly unnatural way.

April 1, 2008 at 03:18 PM · nicole, do operas get divided by periods as well? i trust what you are saying, but those i have listened to (more contemporary take i take?) do not sound that note-plain. but lets face is, what do i know?:)

April 1, 2008 at 03:18 PM · "style and possibly more importantly, the teacher's taste and style. do we prefer driving an original ford model T or a lexus or something else of our fancy? of course, it is our choice:)

i have a feeling those who enjoy lexus probably HATE early models:)



On the other hand, there are lots of collectors who enjoy vintage cars (and newer cars are seldom "collectable" items which raise in value)--and most newer cars are modeled after vintage cars.

So there you go ;>)

April 1, 2008 at 03:24 PM · Marina - your points are good. While you may find my use of the term "A-415 crowd" to be condescending, I find a great deal of condescension and arrogance in many of their attitudes towards modern performers. There is a lot of "my way or the highway." We can argue forever about whether we like Szeryng's solo Bach, but to say that it is essentially junk because he fails to follow the rules of authentic performance (which I have heard from time to time from some of these folks) is not really different from what Zukerman says. You may prefer one to the other or may like both or neither, but neither one is junk or rubbish.

April 1, 2008 at 03:26 PM · Speaking of things that are natural, a lot of eastern European folk music uses time signatures that we consider awkward. What gives?

April 1, 2008 at 04:26 PM · I believe they do, Al. In particular, I'm thinking of an aria I heard that was from Dido and Aeneas. One of the singers in the class exclaimed, "Isn't that really bad trill technique?" To which the teacher replied, "No, it's ornamentation in a different performance practice."

I'm not saying that my instructors are beyond bias, but I'm not sure it's unnatural or that it sounds bad.

In general though, opera is a bit of a different animal. The genre as we know it it dominated by the likes of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner.

April 1, 2008 at 03:41 PM · Well, Marina

It is a subtle thing--on appearances Corrente and Courante can be seen as derivative spellings/nationalities of one another....they are both in triple meter usually 3/2 or occasionally 6/4...kinda similar on the surface....


Courantes-were french court dances under the French Monarchy (which controlled music as an extension of the state. Various period and modern thinkers describe it all manners most commonly "noble" or "serious". Like French weather they tend to be slow, and kinda depressing (to my ears ;>) )

Correntes-were keyboard or string virtuositc pieces predominantly in Italy. That featured all manner of arpeggiations and scales over a bass line. Like Italians-the tempo tends to be reminiscent of an Italian giving you directions in a hurry :>)

Of course-these are my own readings....and I'm TERRIBLY over-simplifying things. For more scholarly approaches and readings of these matters-there's a WHOLE CHAPTER (about 20 or so) on the Courante and another on the Corrente in "Dance and the Music of JS Bach" by Little and Jenne that is VERY neat and interesting reading (published in 1991)....speaking not only about the dance itself-the meter of it, the history, the style....all neat to read.

With the world being FAR larger then-there were also DISTINCT regional and national differences in everything. I have a 700 PAGE treatise on TRILLS (and other ornamentation) in various regions during the baroque--it is fascinating to see how the Italians in one area saw a trill in comparison to the Germans or French in another as well as during different time periods.

April 1, 2008 at 03:58 PM · I would never call anything Szeryng plays as junk! There are no performers I condemn for interpretation. I prefer Jaap Schroder's Bach above anyone else but do not get offended or upset if someone likes Milstein or Perlman - they are wonderful as well, but Jaap's hits home for me.

The divide between "modern" performers and performers who perform "early music" is caused by a few stubborn angry zealots. I am neither upset nor conflicted when someone presents their own interpretation. I appreciate it for what it is, let it influence me in whatever way it will, and then I move on to perfect my own interpretation.

The 415-club makes us sound like communists just waiting to take over the world. It's weird to condemn anyone who enjoys scholarship with resentment because they have conviction in their own ideas.

April 1, 2008 at 03:46 PM · Tom, thanks for explaining your take on both "crowds." Just in my own experience, I haven't run into any of the early music condescension. But I've run into quite a bit of the Perlman/Zukerman/Heifetz condescension. (It may not be fair to associate their names with it, and I wouldn't mind coming up with some other way to refer to it). It's not that I don't believe you that the "A-415 crowd" exists, like other things we're discussing in this thread it's probably associated with particular times and places and schools.

I had a violin teacher in my teens who came from the other crowd--huge fan of Heifetz, Kreisler, Perlman, continuous vibrato; thought authentic music performance was foolish rubbish for substandard players--and I started having trouble connecting with him at a certain point. I got discouraged about the violin as a whole because I thought that was all there was: his way or the highway. It was the discovery of alternatives to Heifetz-style classical violin--fiddling, early music, jazz, viola--that got me interested in playing anything (including classical violin) again.

I think we all have to be careful about my-way-or-the-highway thinking. As you say, neither of them is junk or rubbish.

Al, I wasn't surprised by Perlman's use of HATES, but I was disappointed. I've used the word that way myself and been rightly called on it. It wasn't a good way to make my point.

I don't have anything close to perfect or absolute pitch and so I find many of the other responses in this thread fascinating. Although my relative pitch is pretty good, it is so relative that I doubt if I would even be able to notice if an orchestra had tuned down to A-415, as long as everyone was in tune with each other within the group itself.

April 1, 2008 at 04:34 PM · Marina - I have no problem with people like you who are open-minded and are studying how musicians approached these pieces in earlier periods. My problem is with people who think there is a "right" or "correct" way of playing these pieces. This is perhaps exemplified by what one of my relatives, Wanda Landowska, the grandmother of the period performance movement, said in response to Rosalyn Tureck's criticism of her Bach: "That's fine dear. You play Bach your way and I'll play Bach his way."

IMHO, almost any interpretation by a fine performer provides insight into the music and contributes to my interpretation of it. To give an example, I saw Hahn do Bach's second partita for solo violin in concert. She played it extremely legato, something which would never have occurred to me since my teacher always told me to remember that these were dance movments and should reflect that to some extent. Nevertheless, the way she played it brought out a haunting quality which I had never heard in other versions and found quite interesting and appropriate.

April 1, 2008 at 07:29 PM · Tom, you keep pointing to Wanda Landowska as your one example of early-musician snobbishness. (It's a rather benign comment, as responses to criticism taken out of context go.)

I submit that on this forum to date no other examples have been put forward, while one after another we see quoted or posted snide comments about period performance from both highly-regarded and unknown modern players.

That seems a pretty clear indication of which side actually maintains the bulk of the intolerance. It's almost funny how often the modern-chauvinists complain about period performance while claiming it's because the early-music people are snobs.

April 1, 2008 at 07:36 PM · Andres - you may want to look at some of the previous threads on this. As I recall, Ilya Gringolts had some very strong views. I also recall some years ago seeing some strong views put forward by Monica Huggett. I use Landowska because of her iconic status and, despite my disagreement with it, the wonderful repartée aspect of the quote. One thing about Landowska, however, is that at the time of the quote, she and her followers were trying to get themselves taken seriously by the music world. Thus, it may have been easier to justify the strong position she took than it is now, when period performance/historically informed performance is recognized as legit.

At this point, we have significantly digressed from the original question in this thread. I would be glad to continue this discussion by email with anyone who wants to.

April 1, 2008 at 10:18 PM · "if violin sound emulates human singing.. do opera singers hold onto plain notes on purpose? love to see that"

Forgive me if I'm just ignorant but I honestly don't think opera singing is a very natural kind of human singing. When I sing, I certainly don't sound like an opera singer, neither do most people I know.

April 1, 2008 at 10:21 PM · manuel, may be that is not a great example that i submitted. my thinking was that violin playing and opera singing for the most part complemented each other, co-developed in the past 2-3 hundred years in europe. may be the word "natural" is indeed misleading but my impression of opera singing is full of vibrato. whether it is exception or rule i am no authority.

by the way, how do people sing in the 1700's or 1800's formally if not in the style of opera?

April 3, 2008 at 07:38 AM · I suppose the only thing that sounds uglier is the A=442-444 crowd.

Violinists then playing invariably sharp especially with a piano.

These days it's almost impossible to find a violinist playing in tune, so no wonder those old recordings of Neveu, Kreisler and Milstein sound so flat.

April 3, 2008 at 12:38 PM · I agree - 444 is so garish and disturbing to me. When I stand up for when the orchestra tunes I make ugly faces at the oboe.

December 4, 2013 at 08:18 PM · So how do members who have perfect pitch perceive the constant (and often very wide) vibrato of modern singers and instrumentalists? I don't have perfect pitch and it really grates on me. To me it sounds akin to the "wow and flutter" that you couldn't escape from if you played your music on compact cassette rather than LP. (Well, maybe you stood a better chance if you owned a cassette deck that cost, even at that time, many thousands—and for which you still needed speakers, amplifier, etc.) I find myself screaming (silently, of course!) at the offending singer or musician, "For God's sake stay on the note!"

December 4, 2013 at 09:14 PM · At a performance of the Marcello D Minor Oboe Concerto, and somewhere during the 2nd movement the oboe was gradually getting rather humid. The pitch of the oboe slowly rose by almost ½ step. The strings accompanied rather well and in tune with the oboe but the conductor signaled the cembalo to stop playing. The oboist and the string orchestra got many curtain calls.

December 5, 2013 at 01:21 AM · What puzzles me with all this talk of A415 and the implication that it is a Baroque standard is, do we know, and is it possible to know, what pitches were used in the 17/18th centuries? Personally, I think it is more likely that the pitch varied from town to town and perhaps was fixed for that locality by whatever pitch was chosen for the local church organ.

I can see one reason why A415 is a "standard" today because it is more or less a half-tone below A440, thus making life easier for the pianist who is accompanying A415 on a fixed pitch A440 instrument - he only has to transpose the music down half a tone. Incidentally, in my day a standard skill for any church organist was to be able to transpose up or down on the hoof for any pitch interval, depending on the direction the pitch of the congregation decides to wander (source: my organ teacher, backed up by my Dad who was a church organist).

December 5, 2013 at 01:11 PM · Hi Trevor,

An online music magazine at has an essay called "A brief history of the establishment of international standard pitch a=440 hertz" in its English language section.

According to the article, historic tuning can be discovered by checking unmodified organs, tuning forks made in earlier times, and treatises written in times past that discuss tuning. It says that, in reality, tuning practices varied quite a bit, with early organs tuned as high as A-567hz.

I thought it was pretty interesting, and it provides references for all its sources in cased you want more detail.

Anyway, here is the article:

December 5, 2013 at 02:13 PM · My understanding is that the Baroque era featured a variety of tunings, but that A415 was popular because it was a sort of sweet spot for the harpsichord.

December 5, 2013 at 03:23 PM · "My understanding is that the Baroque era featured a variety of tunings, but that A415 was popular because it was a sort of sweet spot for the harpsichord." - Tom Holzman

Which harpsichord lol?

December 5, 2013 at 04:27 PM · Presumably not so "sweet" if Tommy Beecham's (in)famous opinion of the harpsichord is followed ;)

December 5, 2013 at 04:50 PM · Todd, interesting and informative article. Fwiw, my piano, a post-WWII Rippen upright made in Holland, is tuned to middle C = 256, corresponding to A=430.5. That A feels like it is 1/4 tone flat on A440. I'm quite used to it, and the cost of retuning the piano to A440, which may well include the cost of at least partial restringing, just isn't worth it.

December 5, 2013 at 06:07 PM · somewhere ... there's a video of someone playing a cheap violin at 440hz and then again at 415hz - the lower pitch was sweeter sounding - noticeably so.

discussion concerning the varying pitches is rich in bugaboo - perlman's cranky comment included.

December 6, 2013 at 12:42 AM · I wonder if the great makers of the Cremonese period had a specific pitch in mind when they made their instruments - perhaps a pitch that would optimize the sound for gut strings.

December 6, 2013 at 06:40 AM · trevor - if only i could find that video - i think that was the point he was making. there's a span of tonality best suited to the violin - 440hz being the upper limit - or so it sounds to my sensitive and getting even more so as the years go by, ears.

December 7, 2013 at 06:34 AM · Todd Crim, very interesting article. The author's conclusions mirror my own experience when learning to play guitar as a youth for dances. We would always tune to the piano if there was one and if not, to a harmonica that one of the musicians carried around for that very reason. Tuning to the piano was a necessity, if one was used, for obvious reasons. I never saw a tuning fork until much later in life.

Changing tunings doesn't bother me much as I learned early on to develop relative pitch but I have a musician friend that has absolute pitch and anything other than A-440 throws him for a loop.

December 9, 2013 at 10:38 AM · When I was a student I used to have something very close to perfect pitch based on A=440 or thereabouts (ie if you played a random note on a piano I could usually tell what it was). I used to find performances as lower pitch very disconcerting - the resonance of a violin, open strings etc would tell me that it was being played in D minor (say), yet my sense of pitch told me it was in C# minor. Similarly several string quartets had a habit of tuning sharp (up to a semitone!), which I also had problems with. I don't have any expertise in this area but I like Trevor Jennings' theory about local pitches - makes a lot of sense.

A=440 does seem somewhat arbitrary. The nearest I can suggest which has a basis in the Natural Order of Things would be C=256 (a power of 2) which gives A=430 - some distance away from both 415 and 440 - which doesn't really help at all.

A=444 - why? and if we keep increaing the frequency where do we stop? And surely increaing the frequency results in greater tension on the strings (unless they are modified as well) and more strain on the instrument (I used to be wary of scordatura for the same reason). And makes life more difficult for sopranos.....

December 9, 2013 at 02:56 PM · Some Irish folk bands regularly tune half a tone high, presumably to give that extra edge when playing in a noisy environment such as for dancers - although I'm not sure it's necessary when bands have more than adequate PA systems. Some bands, and solo fiddles, also record a half tone sharp on their CDs. The rumor that this is done in order to make it difficult for others, the lesser lights, to play along with the recordings is of course an insult to those fine recording artists and should not be countenanced ;)

Getting back to the classical world, I have a 1968 LP (Supraphon SUA ST 50916) of Beethoven's quartets Op. 74 and 95, performed by the Prague Quartet. When I first listened to it it sounded slightly odd. I couldn't quite figure it out and then realized it was playing a half-tone sharp. If you haven't got perfect pitch, as I haven't, then the dead giveaway is the unnaturally fast vibrato and tight resonances. I can only assume that this was done post-production by the recording company in order to get those two quartets comfortably onto one LP without distortions or crosstalk. Of course, in 1968 there was no digital technology to do the job less obtrusively. Presumably, it never occurred to whoever thought this one up that it would be noticed by at least one listener.

I have since, for my own private listening, copied that LP onto my computer and adjusted the speed, pitch and timing to get back to what the Prague Quartet would have heard themselves in the recording studio. On the computer it now sounds fine, with the correct pitch, vibrato rate, and resonances.

December 9, 2013 at 06:25 PM · Here's anther conundrum for those with perfect pitch:

The Tuning Wars: 'Equal Temperament Destroys Everything …'

While the subject of equal temperament versus other forms of tuning won't be new to anyone here, this is still a very interesting article.

December 11, 2013 at 01:10 PM · all this made me think it would be fun to have a viola like instrument made that is one full octave lower than the violin.

December 11, 2013 at 02:03 PM · Paul, "octave" strings for the violin are around, but usually for use in a folk music environment. I know someone who currently uses octave strings on her standard fiddle. However, because the design of the violin is such that it finds it difficult to produce fundamentals below middle c, be prepared for a slightly disappointing outcome, as I've noticed when I've heard her play her octave violin. However, in a busy folk session it doesn't matter all that much.

I'd guess that there are acoustic violins that have been specifically designed for octave use, but the way to go for those who are serious is to use an electric violin, then the electronics system takes care of the sound production.

December 11, 2013 at 03:17 PM · And of course there are the Carleen Hutchins New Violin Family instruments: eight violin sizes from the tiny treble to the contrabass. I believe the size an octave below violin tuning is called the "tenor violin" (standard viola is the "alto" while the standard violin is the "mezzo"). From the alto down, the instruments are played vertically.

See chart on bottom of this page. On the left you can find a page for luthiers who make these instruments.

December 11, 2013 at 04:31 PM · paul - a series of related videos

sounds pretty rubbery to me but i understand some use violin strings on their smaller-sized violas with good results.

December 11, 2013 at 06:03 PM · There is an important warning in the comments on the video that Bill drew to our attention - the holes in standard violin pegs probably won't accept the thick octave strings, which means the services of a luthier will be required to enlarge the peg holes. Do not attempt this yourself unless you really know how, because there is the possibility of the peg splitting, as well as the strength of the peg being compromised. It is clearly an irreversible procedure, so there could be problems later on when returning to normal diameter strings.

Similarly, the grooves in the nut and bridge would have to reworked (by a luthier, of course) to accommodate the thick octave strings - this is also an irreversible procedure. And if you use a low action, as I do on my violins, there may well be problems arising out of the octave strings rattling on the fingerboard.

Bottom line - in my opinion it is inadvisable to use a standard violin for octave strings without risking big problems, especially if you want to return to normal strings later on. Best option is to use a violin specifically designed for the job, like the one used in the video.

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