Original Reference for Tuning

July 29, 2009 at 03:39 AM ·

Although there is some debate, tuning the violin to A440 seems to be generally accepted.  As a beginner, it is relatively easy to set my tuner to 440 and pull the bow across the A string until the little light in the middle turns green, and I would imagine this is how most beginners start.  However, this led me to question how violins were originally tuned in the 16th century - and I don't mean what frequency or another.  They would not have had that nice electronic device to help them, and would have tuned by ear.  Does anyone know what they used as their reference?  For example was it a tuning fork, or some other similar device?   

Replies (26)

July 29, 2009 at 12:06 PM ·

The tuning fork was invented in 1711, and before that there was always the organ. In orchestras, the wind instruments (bassoon!) would have determined the pitch.

Edit: the length of organ pipes was standardized and expressed in feet. The length of a foot was initially determined locally as the mean of 16 or 32 adult men's feet's lengths.

July 29, 2009 at 09:40 AM ·

I always find this an amusing musical triva tidbit.  Prior to standardized tuning (in Western cultures anyway) the local church organ as a point of reference for both instrumentalists and singers.  Back in those days when an organ had to be tuned (to itself) they would bend the pipes at the top.  After prolonged bending and reshaping the metal at the top of the pipe would eventually become worn so they would snip off that part.  Which meant that everyone had to sing and play higher and higher lol.

While the tuning fork did come out, they were still not standardized.  Most of them were actually much lower than A 440 which is why we have issues with really old wood instruments these days becuase they were not built to play at such a high tension.  The idea of A 440 being the standard for orchestra tuning did not come around until the 1920s.

July 29, 2009 at 12:16 PM ·

They probably tuned to whatever instrument in the ensemble was the least "tunable", like a wind instrument or the organ. Absent that, bells were pretty common, and any number of other things will emit a pitch when struck.

Questions about string tension in the 17th century often come up in the luthier community. The answer is that we don't really know how much string tension was used. It can't be derived from the length and tuning pitch without also knowing the thickness of the string (mass per unit length), and this could have varied according to preferences of a particular player, or the whims of the string maker. Some scholars believe that there have been certain times and locations where string tension was considerably higher than it is today.

July 29, 2009 at 09:33 PM ·

Is A440 really a standard?  Don't most orchestras tune a bit higher, like 441 or 442?

July 30, 2009 at 12:43 AM ·

we discussed this in my acoustics course this year, so I just dug up the lecture notes...

prior to 18th century, there was no established universal pitch standard, France used aprox. 374hz and northern Germany used something in the range of 567hz ( a huge difference)

In 1711, the tuning fork was deeloped by John Shore who played trumpet for Handel and allowed musicians to strive for a standardized pitch for the first time.

19th cent. pitch standards in Europe were much lower than today, Mozart's piano was built to play at A=421.6 and in the days of Beethoven and Haydn music was sung and played one half step lower.

in 1834 Germany proposed establishing a standard of pitch A=440, a compromise number in an effort to bring order to the tuning chaos, this effort was ignored.

in 1859 a French commission of two physicists, four government officials and composers Rossini, Meyerbeer, Auber, and Halevey submitted a report recommending A=435 as a standard and became an enforced law in France.

A=435 was adopted in Germany and some of Italy but not accepted in England. All of these pitch standards were debated without regard to the affects of temperature variation.

in 1885 an international conference in Vienna adopted A=440 as an international standard, the English still resisted. in 1881 Steinway tuned its pianos to 457hz, in 1895 a new pipe organ was built for the Queen of England and tuned to A=435, following this standard the British Philharmonic adopted this at 68 degrees farenheit.

most halls in the 19th Century were kept at aprox. 59 F. when the temperature raised from 59 to  68 degrees, the A 435 changed to A 439, at 72 degrees the A became 440 hz.  It was at this time that the United States began using A=440

in 1924 the US Piano Tuners National Convention urged the adoption of A=440 at 72F, in 1936 A=440 became the industrial standard following its adoption by the American Standards Assoc. and by 1939 it was endorsed by the International Organization of Industrial Standardization and the British Standards Institute. Today most professional model instruments resonate best when tuned to A=440.

July 30, 2009 at 12:48 AM ·

in my tangent, I forgot the OP, my professor said that they sang a note and that was what they tuned to, and of course it was never the same twice since they didnt have a standard reference.

July 30, 2009 at 01:18 AM ·

A singer or instrumentalist with "perfect pitch" could have provided a repeatable standard, but perfect pitch would have been more difficult to develop during a time when performance pitches varied.

For those who are curious, the 567 German "A" would have been equivalent to what we call a C sharp or D today.

July 30, 2009 at 04:36 AM ·


Sorry for the dispute of the original date for a standard, but there was a standard before 1711.

The French used a mime and the conductor's baton. The tip of the baton was barbed, and the mime did not know this. When the conductor placed the end of the baton in a certain location, the mime would release a certain sound (the only sound to be heard from the mime all evening). This was a 6th position G on the E string. Everyone else tuned to this. Unfortunately, the damage done to the mime's self-image was great, and the French are very protective of their mimes; there was a great search for another standard. 

July 30, 2009 at 05:50 AM ·

"Today most professional model instruments resonate best when tuned to A=440."

If we're talking about stringed instruments I'd urge people to take that one with a pound of salt.

July 30, 2009 at 12:16 PM ·

Roland- You have got to be kidding??????

July 30, 2009 at 03:43 PM ·


I apologize if I offended; I just couldn't help but think of an audible sound from a mime as a significant tone. Once I got that thought in my head, I had to run with it.

My alternate theory was that Mimes used to be of perfect pitch, and had the most wonderful voices. When they were replaced in the music world by the tuning fork, they swore to never again utter a sound. That oath has held true through modern times.

July 30, 2009 at 04:26 PM ·

Roland -

Perhaps the Mimes abused their power over pitch, and for that great insult, the Muses have condemed them to silence for all eternity.  But, late in the night, if you listen carefully as you stroll by the concert halls and salons of the world, you can still hear their discordant A's whispering through those hallowed halls searching for a Mime to release them from their silent imprisonment.

July 30, 2009 at 05:26 PM ·

Roland- No offence! LOL!!!!! X^D  Man, your humor is to much like mine at times.... scary!  Just the energy radiating off the Mime after being goosed with the baton you could tune an elephant!

July 30, 2009 at 08:22 PM ·

"Today most professional model instruments resonate best when tuned to A=440."

If we're talking about stringed instruments I'd urge people to take that one with a pound of salt.

--that's a whole lot of salt :P

I just copied it straight out of the lecture notes, personally, I tune to 441 because that's where most of the ensembles I play with tune.

July 31, 2009 at 12:58 PM ·

I am curious to what extent people on this site can  hear the difference between A-440, A-441, and A-442.  I have this nagging vision of angels dancing on the head of a pin.

July 31, 2009 at 01:33 PM ·

Of course you can.  If you couldn't you'd be a terrible violinist! :-)

July 31, 2009 at 03:57 PM ·

It is my understanding that a mime can tell the difference between 440.325 and 440.625, but only the best mimes can tell the difference between 440.325 and 440.5.

July 31, 2009 at 05:45 PM ·

Maybe the question is: if I played one of them -- A-440, A-441, or A-442 -- at random without telling which one I was playing, how many could tell me which one I was playing?

July 31, 2009 at 06:35 PM ·

I would bet that a very large percentage of listeners couldn't tell the difference between 415 and 440 under those conditions. Does that make the issue of pitch irrelevant, then?

July 31, 2009 at 08:20 PM ·


This isn't quite what you're asking (re: 440/441/442 Hz)  but you might find the following link interesting. It's a test to see how well you can discriminate between two notes, which gradually become closer and closer together:


(the initial stages are pretty easy; be patient).  It doesn't address specific frequencies (A440, etc - but I think they use 500 Hz in their test) but discriminating between tones that are pretty close together is revealing.

I believe v.com folks discussed this (and their scores) a while back, in another thread.

Larry Samuels

July 31, 2009 at 09:38 PM ·

Michael might be right regarding the pitch perception of a large percentage of listeners. Aging pop singers drop the pitch of their live performances by a third, and aging groupies still throw room keys and (somewhat larger?) panties onto the stage. LOL

July 31, 2009 at 10:55 PM ·

Read, "Temperament" by; Stuart Isacoff!!!!

August 1, 2009 at 01:58 AM ·

Royce, that's a great book. I read it last year. It really helped me understand why I play out of tune!

August 1, 2009 at 04:19 AM ·

If you play 440 and 441 at the same time (octave) you know it after about 2 seconds of listening. The difference frequency is one (1) Hertz.  You hear this as a "wah-wah" over one second intervals.

August 1, 2009 at 01:49 PM ·

Marty- LOL! Hahahahah!  I came to the same conclusion regarding myself! 

August 2, 2009 at 01:15 AM ·

Larry - thanks!


Michael - I think the question of relevance is a good one.  I am not sure why an orch or anyone should care whether they are tuning at 440, 441, or 442 as long as everyone in the group is tuning to the same pitch.

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