Rising concert pitch, and tuning forks

January 10, 2011 at 08:28 PM ·

I just ordered some more tuning forks with 442 Hz (for my different violin cases). Since I restarted playing orchestra and chamber music I had to get used to the higher pitch that is the trend nowadays. I put away my trusty old 440's, and since then my ears accommodated to 442. I notice it at once when an instrument is below that pitch. This is very annoying, because I spend a lot of my time giving guitar lessons, and the students enter after tuning their instruments using electronic tuners set to 440. So I always have to tune down, after I tuned my guitar by ear to 442.

The whole pop/rock/jazz sector seems to remain with 440, e-tuners are 440 by default, keyboards too, I never noticed keyboards being tuned higher.

I wonder how other musicians handle this, since the music shops still offer only tuning forks with 440 Hz, and 442 or 443 have to be ordered and don't seem to be regular.

Replies (23)

January 10, 2011 at 08:33 PM ·

 Higher, faster, louder – it will all end in tears. Mark my words.

January 10, 2011 at 09:00 PM ·

Why not just tune the instrument to B and 'B done with it?'

January 10, 2011 at 09:28 PM ·

At a carol concert last year (2010) one of the carols we played was an arrangement by David Willcocks of Kings College, Cambridge. It was in B major. Some of the orchestra queried this (the non-strings in particular were a little worried) and the conductor had no hesitation in telling us to play in B-flat (same dots on the stave, but a different key-signature, and be careful with the accidentals!) She said to me afterward that her guess was that Willcocks chose B major to show off the stratospheric boy trebles in the Kings College choir.

Which brings me to the 2010 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast live from Kings on Christmas Eve. There was one carol in particular, written specifically for the choir I suspect, that sounded uncomfortably high for the boys. You could hear one or two seeming about to crack under the strain and others were losing their tone. All quite unnecessary. It could have been sung a tone lower and then it would have been much smoother and cleaner. Willcocks wasn't the conductor (he's long since retired).

January 10, 2011 at 11:51 PM ·

Pop, rock, and jazz work more closely with singers, and singers have in the past been the ones who have put their feet down firmly against pitch inflation.  A lot of acts that tour often actually go down by a semitone (or more) at concerts so the singers have an easier time of it.  Back when concerts would be broadcast on the radio live, they just used to bump it back up to brighten it.

January 11, 2011 at 12:06 AM ·

This will extend Janis's point a bit; I had completed the message before Janis posted hers.

I am very much opposed to higher tunings.  I start every practice session by tuning to A-440.  If the tuning drops below 440, I notice it right away, and I don't like it.

In listening to others' performances, I have a bit more tolerance; I can listen to a diapason up to 442 -- it still sounds like A to my mind -- but not higher.

Trevor's input reminds me of what singer Renata Tebaldi, 1922-2004, had to say on the subject.  Tebaldi, an artist I very much admire, said that the diapason should not go above 440.  I wince at the idea of tuning higher than 442.  Think of the poor singers in these circumstances, forced as they are to stretch their instruments to unaccustomed higher pitches.

The interview with Tebaldi is worth reading in its entirely.  If you don't have time or inclination to read the whole thing, search on the page for 440 -- you'll see the part I'm referring to.

January 11, 2011 at 12:44 AM ·

Interesting page -- Tebaldi is indeed a fave of mine as an opera nut.  :-)

If string players were in the same boat as singers and had only one set of strings to last them their entire lives, we'd see the end of pitch inflation.  :-)

January 11, 2011 at 05:40 AM ·

 I think the whole dilema of tuning at a different frequency ( 430, 440, 443, 445, etc) can be viewed from different points of view.

On one hand you have orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic, who accordingly to Claudio Abbado in an Interview, they tune to 447 when they play at the Musikverein, the reason for this? Just because the hall has such a dark sound, so they tune to 447 in order to get a more bright sound..

Of course one has to tune with the piano if you are playing well, with piano. How dark are the acoustics of the hall, how does the orchestra tune, etc? That comes just as something that is always going to be there, I really wouldn't want everyone tuning at the same frequency, that would be such a catastrophe.

I Personally tune at 443 when playing solo most of the time, I find it to be a very balanced frequency for my ear. but of course, to me it all comes down to the hall and the acoustics in order to set my tunning frequency,

The problem in the pop/rock/jazz sector is very simple. Most of the people that play in those genres do not really care about sound at all, to them everything is the same and has no effect at all in any way at what frequency they tune, so it is normal that they just go at 440 because it is a "Standard" in their world.

January 11, 2011 at 12:05 PM ·

I wish to announce the tunable tuning fork (Patent Applied for).  It has 170 pairs of clip-on prong extensions to allow adjustmen from 330 to 500.    

Hah.  Take that electronic tuner addicts!

January 11, 2011 at 05:23 PM ·

@ Janis: "If string players were in the same boat as singers and had only one set of strings to last them their entire lives, we'd see the end of pitch inflation."

I'm sure we would.  Every time I install new strings, part of me winces when I have to tighten them to their required pitch.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
@ Oscar: "… the Vienna Philharmonic … tune to 447 when they play at the Musikverein … because the hall has such a dark sound …."

Is this the interview?  Search on the page for 447.  The paragraph describes the Musikverein's acoustics as "warm" rather than "dark."  Also check out this opening of the 2010 New Year concert at the Musikverein -- with the VPO playing Johann Strauss Jr.'s overture to Die Fledermaus.  I checked this performance against my A-440 tuner; I estimate the VPO's tuning here at 442.

Then check out soloist Mayuko Kamio's opening of the Tchaikovsky VC with the JPO.  Veteran v.commie Stephen Brivati, aka Buri, who lives in Japan, has told us that the orchestras there use 442.  The tunings of the VPO and JPO clips are about the same.

To compensate for room acoustics, although I don't re-tune at all, I will vary my instrument/string combinations.  If somebody asked me to tune to 447, I'd say: "Forget it.  Find yourself another player."  I use gut strings; and since they're conditioned to 440, they'd start going flat right away from 447 and need frequent re-tuning.  For me, the cure would be worse than the disease.

January 11, 2011 at 07:02 PM ·

 @ Jim Hastings

Yes that is the interview, it's the August 2010 Issue of Gramophone magazine.

What do you think about variation in pitch? Do you think it can be raised any higher?

"Sometimes the Instruments have to play at 415 kHz or 440 kHz or 442 kHz. If you go to Vienna, it is 447 kHz. Of course, if it is higher it makes the sound more brilliant. It depends very much on the acoustics. In Vienna for example, it's quite high, but the acoustics of the Musikverein are so warm that it is not bad. I remember in Berlin (Berliner Philharmoniker) they used to tune at 444 kHz. With the Orchestra Mozart we tune at 442 kHz, although with Pergolesi we have to lower the pitch, especially if you have an oboe d'amore at 415 kHz, etc."

Yes, I did get confused and said "dark acoustics" instead of "warm" and for that I apologise, but I did not remember everything as it was said, since it was 6 months since I read that interview (which is not an excuse). But everything else I said seems to be ok with what Abbado says in the interview, I don't think Claudio Abbado would be wrong in the pitches he says they say they use, but who knows, maybe they also use 442. I think the easiest way to know would be to ask a member of the Wiener Philharmoniker. if they do have a set pitch or if not? How often they change it? The choice of repertoire has a great impact also, so many things to take into consideration, as I said before.

Regarding your gut strings, then I am affraid 440 is your best bet for stability, but still I think that variation of pitch in kHz gives a fresh impresion, at least to my ear, so I do enjoy it.

January 12, 2011 at 12:37 AM ·

talk about rising pitch, be glad you don't live with a Grade II Great Highland Bagpiper (my son)...the pitch has risen over and over year after year...higher pitch = louder/brighter...

 

well I still love it....

January 12, 2011 at 01:22 AM ·

Abbado's words: "In Vienna for example, it's [the tuning is] quite high, but the acoustics of the Musikverein are so warm that it is not bad."

I sense from the context that the VPO doesn't have special tuning for the Musikverein but that the acoustics there are more accommodating to the higher pitch; i.e., the sound is brilliant but not shrill.

I have so-called perfect pitch, but it's not so absolute that +2 vibrations will throw me off.  The key of A in the Strauss clip still sounds like A to me.  If the tuning had been 447, this would have jarred me immediately; it would sound to me like a key somewhere between A and B-flat. 

On variation of pitch: The way I like to achieve this is to take a piece written for voice or some other instrument and transpose it; e.g., from A-flat to G -- or maybe from A-flat to A.  This gives me more use of open strings -- plus the sympathetic vibrations from them when I'm playing their notes on adjacent strings.

For still more brilliance at the top, I'll use a steel E instead of a wound E.  This gives more sheen to the sound when I'm playing on this string -- and louder sympathetic vibrations when I'm playing on the others.

I have to plead ignorance regarding electric guitars and the strings electric guitar players ordinarily use; but my guess is that your strings have more pitch stability than the gut strings I'm using -- right?

January 12, 2011 at 04:46 AM ·

Pop music etc. is not as averse to redefining pitch as one might imagine.  Obviously, students must have some kind of standard A to which to tune, so why not use the preset 440 setting on the cheap electric tuner?    When I tune by ear, my A varies according to what sounds best for the instrument under the circumstance of room and weather etc. 

It's standard practice among many rock guitarists (Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Guns and Roses for example) to tune their instruments a half step, sometimes as far as a whole step, down to reduce the tension on the strings to facilitate string bending and other ornaments.  These songs are always transcribed in the pitch that is played rather than the pitch as heard.

Notwithstanding Oscar's comment about non-classical musicians, they care very much about sound and have many other, common methods of experimenting with pitch and tone.  Just consider that pile of electronic pedals at every guitarist's toes which usually includes some type of pitch shifting device.  Consider as well that, in addition to tuning the instrument lower, most guitarists are adept at scordatura in a way that has been lost in the violin world.

I think also that jazz musicians, in particular, MUST have a standard that applies across the board to rarely tuned pianos in clubs, electric keyboards, and complete strangers they are expected to play with at a moments notice.

January 12, 2011 at 07:13 AM ·

 

Jim Hastings

Steel Strings in electric guitars don't have the stability that they should have (You have more stability with gut strings, believe me), I am an electric guitar player and I do have a very decent sense of pitch, so it just throws me out of the window every time I play, because we have frets and with frets the problem is that you cannot compensate the tuning they way you would do it on a violin, so you are just stuck right there out of tune most of the time. Even if you have a professional instrument with a great setup, you are still playing on the same ball game "out of tune".

One can also put it as Ivry Gitlis said on "The Art of Violin": Out of tune? what does that mean? It gives a certain color to it.

It becomes a greater problem when your instrument has a Floyd Rose bridge system (It's a floating bridge system), because if one string goes out of tune it affects directly the pitch on every string and not just one, it is a very complicated subject for us, lucky you violinist, you can compensate your tuning, be grateful for that.

@ Randy Mollner

Hendrix, Steve Ray and Slash play more out of tune than regularly most of the time, so it really doesn't matter if they use Scordatura or not, also half the time they don't/didn't knew what they where doing, since they where on automatic pilot.

Scordatura in the world of Electric Guitar means nothing to them really, Most of them don't even read music and they use the scordatura just to produce noise but not music. It would be completely different if they used scordatura (like the ones needed for some of the Biber Sonatas or music by Kodaly), to actually make music, now that would be interesting.

Finally, when playing with piano (as much as I love doing that), it becomes auto destructive as a guitar player, there is just nothing you can do about it, except keep playing out of tune until the end.

Here's an example:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHtMMnVBtb4

Please don't burn me with a flame thrower.

 

January 12, 2011 at 06:33 PM ·

Hey Oscar, I only bring up Slash, Hendrix etc. as examples of guitarists who routinely tune to an A that is not 440.  I make no judgment of their playing.

As far as Scordatura, you're being a bit dismissive of players like Leo Kottke, Stanley Jordan, Ry Cooder, and, especially, Chet Atkins, who excelled at changing tunings during the song.  Sure, guitarists might not recognize the word, simply referring to this as "alternate tunings," but they use the tunings similarly to Biber: to facilitate the playing of parts and voicings that are impossible in standard tuning.  I should also mention the use of "Nashville" tuning which is used to achieve the same results, though by different means,  as orchestras who use a higher A: to allow a part to be played in the normal manner and have it sound brighter.

I guess that the idea that "guitarists don't care about their sound" is just befuddling to me.  Anyone who has sat in a room full of electric guitarists geeking out on their gear can attest that, far from being dismissive, they obsess about it in a way that puts violinists to shame.  Particularly when one considers that an electric guitarist's instrument includes the pick and the amplifier speaker as well as everything in between.

January 13, 2011 at 01:10 AM ·

Oscar, thanks for the info on electric guitars and steel strings.  I got a kick out of your vid -- thanks for sharing; I've played it twice.

No flame-throwers in my innocent hand; I am, oh, so civilized -- although I have an impish side, too.  But now that we finally have some accumulated snow on the ground -- first time here in nearly 10 years -- I'll gladly throw some of it toward our Canadian and Alaskan friends who keep rolling these northern air masses over us folks here below the 34th parallel.

Marc -- Anne-Marie -- Elise -- Emily G. -- ?  Are you the ones doing this in our honor?  Or did you just open your south doors to get some heat?

Well, whatever -- I'm having fun with it.

January 13, 2011 at 01:53 AM ·

27" here.

January 13, 2011 at 09:42 AM ·

On the matter of steel strings. For a decent electric guitar player it's easy to compensate detuned strings while playing. The strings react very sensitive to pressure, bending etc., and some notes couldn't be played at all if it weren't so ("blue notes".

 

January 13, 2011 at 11:05 AM ·

440 is considered the standard, though some european orchestras do tune to higher frequencies as higher frequencies give a brighter sound.

Where I am, i have seen no trend of higher frequencies. It's 440, or whatever the oboist gives :)

January 13, 2011 at 05:26 PM ·

@Elise,

I'm going to have to look over your patent for the tunable tuning fork to make certain it doesn't come too close to my patent pending, for the multi-tuning fork. It has 5 heads, one each tuned at 430, 440, 442, 445, and one really long one at 460; the long one has a measure on the side so you can trim it to the desired frequency.

It includes a spring-loaded hammer to trigger the sound; it generates all 5 frequencies at once, and lets you pick which you want to use to tune.

January 13, 2011 at 05:59 PM ·

Roland - I am actually working on the Graduated Prong Tuning Fork (TM) that generates ALL frequencies.  The major advance is that technically you can't actually ever be out of tune..  It is self pronging (by means of the plutonium-driven newton's cradle escapment device) and can also double windless white-noise - garden chimes.   

Take that!

January 14, 2011 at 12:30 AM ·

I don't think I'll get involved deeply in this little sub-discussion! It is too reminiscent of some of the strange and weird inventions occasionally brought into my office by even stranger and weirder inventors when I was a patent attorney - perpetual motion and time machines weren't even half of it (one "inventor" was dressed as a monk and claimed to be "Francis" Bacon). 

The common factor in all such cases was that we couldn't get these guys off the premises fast enough ;-) 

 

January 14, 2011 at 01:01 AM ·

However, to inject a little culture from the early Baroque into this thread, I'll mention the real Francis Bacon (Lord Bacon 1560-1626), who wrote in his "New Atlantis" (1626, his last work, an imaginative account of a college of learning): 

"We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generations. We have harmonies, which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds; divers instruments likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have; with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp. We make diverse tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire; we represent and imitate are articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps, which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly. We also have divers strange and artificial echoes reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller, and some deeper; yea. some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes in strange lines and distances."

It reads like ideas for forerunners of the Royal College of Music, the string quartets of the 20th century microtone composer Alois Habá, a 21st century recording studio, a PA system, and a present-day Polish violinist well-known on YouTube for all the wrong reasons ("diverse tremblings and warblings of sounds"). 
 

 

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