who tunes their A to 415 hz?

January 16, 2013 at 04:38 PM · how many tune their A to 415 hz? for those who do, why (purple prose accepted)? just curious.

Replies (45)

January 16, 2013 at 06:10 PM · If I'm playing with a Baroque violin in an early music group, I'm usually at 415Hz. Why? It's a consensus in the early music community. In the periods in question, the pitch of A varied wildly across Europe. In places it was in the high 300s, but our modern A=440Hz is higher than most anywhere. 415 was a compromise to bring the early instruments people were experimenting with back within an historical range, but keep it close enough to modern A that it wouldn't totally throw off the players.

On my modern violin, I use 440 like everyone else.

January 16, 2013 at 11:33 PM · When I read your post, I thought a joke would follow. Since it didn't, I'll provide a slightly plagiarized version of another joke:

Q. Who tunes their A to 415?

A. Don't worry, you don't have to ask. They'll tell you.

January 17, 2013 at 05:09 AM · OR it could just be obvious from the weaker sound and lack of vibrato ... they don't have to tell you once they have played a couple of notes ... My prose is more blue than purple ...

January 17, 2013 at 06:45 AM · I started tuning to A415 this past year especially when I practice solo Bach, because I like the way it sounds. I must be getting old...

January 17, 2013 at 03:25 PM · I recently set up one of my violins with pure gut strings (wound on G) and tuned it to 415. I like the sound this gives, but find it very hard to adjust to the instrument sounding a semitone flat.

January 17, 2013 at 06:32 PM · Fred - your point about the incredible variation is well-taken. My recollection from my reading is that A-415 was used because it was a particularly good tuning for the harpsichord.

January 17, 2013 at 08:01 PM · I've got perfect pitch, so I can't tune to anything other than 440, or it drives me mentally insane!

January 17, 2013 at 08:30 PM · ...no to mention that the pitch also at times went up in some parts of Europe because there was a shortage of pipes for organ builders (or they wanted to save some money).

Some violins do sound way better when tuned to 415Hz. I guess progress does not necessary mean better than before.

January 18, 2013 at 03:38 AM · "weaker sound and lack of vibrato"

Do we have to go there again in every post on Baroque tuning/period playing and start picking it apart?

I would call the sound open and resonant and the vibrato a shimmer. :)

January 18, 2013 at 06:44 AM · Interestingly, I have an 1870 oboe from the top Paris firm (probably made for the English market though) which is sharper than 440! Both joints had to be extended later in life.

January 18, 2013 at 09:40 AM · "I've got perfect pitch, so I can't tune to anything other than 440, or it drives me mentally insane!"

Gregory - I've not got perfect pitch but I'm definitely mentally insane ...

January 18, 2013 at 09:43 AM · ... "shimmering vibrato" seems like a worthy goal.

the "g" at 415 hz. was always a bit out, or so it seemed to me. i've since bumped it up a bit to 432 hz. and like it better. why? - tad less strident in the upper register than 440 hz. and gentler on the ears.

if i can find one, i'm going to buy a 432 hz. "a" tuning fork for some major retro-mojo.

January 18, 2013 at 09:44 AM · ""weaker sound and lack of vibrato"

"Do we have to go there again in every post on Baroque tuning/period playing and start picking it apart?

I would call the sound open and resonant and the vibrato a shimmer. :)"

I knew you would probably fail to ignore my insane ramblings, Erica!! Your description is a good one though, so I had better give myself a hundred lines of "I must not make bad jokes on forums (or words to that effect ...)!

I hope you will forgive me and kiss and make up ...?

January 18, 2013 at 04:17 PM · I had an interesting conversation once with a violinist in a baroque group during a concert intermission. I asked her if any of the singers were having trouble with the A-415 pitch. She said they weren't but that the violinist next to her must have perfect pitch because he was having trouble playing in tune.

January 19, 2013 at 01:20 AM · Peter, it's just that I find Baroque violin particularly beautiful and frequently have the opportunity to hear some really excellent musicians in person playing on period instruments. Their violins (and violas and cellos) are quite lovely, have their own distinct character, and are able to tell a beautiful story, albeit a different one from that of a modern violin. :)

You just seem so annoyed by period playing, and I don't quite know why.

January 19, 2013 at 03:25 AM · Erica - you must overlook and forgive my tongue-in-cheek comments. I do it quite often with modern playing too! I do appreciate really good Baroque playing when I come accross it, and I do believe there are aspects of it that can teach us all how to play using modern set ups, such as left hand position (Re Ruggerio Ricci's book "Glissando") and the absolute need NOT to grip with the head and kneck.

So I'm not quite so dyed-in-the-wool as I may appear, and I'm sure if we knew each other face to face we would have an interesting and fruitful discussion. I don't seem to have problems when talking about this subject with other musicians in the flesch (deliberate pun) so it must be my clumsy written words that are at fault.

Hope this means we can still communicate as I value your input. Just tell me to shut up whenever necessary!

January 19, 2013 at 06:54 AM · 442 is the way of the A in LA...high strung!

January 19, 2013 at 03:39 PM · Thank you Peter. :)

Here is an example - I am slogging through one of the Bach cello suites on violin, and my teacher recorded it for me so I could hear it. On her modern violin, she brought the style of the piece to me in a way that was different from how I was playing the notes. I also watched her work with my daughter on the Allemande from Partita 2 and help her figure out how to bring it to life.

When I listen to the Baroque instruments they are able to bring this lightness and dance-like quality to the period music.

Anyhow, I will no longer get my feathers ruffled. :)

January 19, 2013 at 04:20 PM · "Here is an example - I am slogging through one of the Bach cello suites on violin, and my teacher recorded it for me so I could hear it. On her modern violin, she brought the style of the piece to me in a way that was different from how I was playing the notes. I also watched her work with my daughter on the Allemande from Partita 2 and help her figure out how to bring it to life.

When I listen to the Baroque instruments they are able to bring this lightness and dance-like quality to the period music."

Erica - are you playing the Bach on a modern violin or a period instrument? My problems are so bad at present (I've just had six months off) that I'm thinking of not bothering to make the effort. Maybe I should take up a Baroque fiddle? But when I hear people play so well on modern instruments I wonder why I still try to do it. I must be mad.

January 19, 2013 at 04:27 PM · Modern violin, both my daughter and I.

However, my daughter frequently uses a Baroque bow for period music (and prefers it). She is also saving for a period instrument and should be able to get one this year. She had the chance to play serveral a few weeks ago and enjoyed playing them immensely.

Now for fun, she played a few notes of a romantic piece on them, and stopped immediately. Not good. If you try anything more than a "shimmer" of vibrato on them, the whole violin goes back and forth. There is a reason period playing sounds the way it does from what I can tell. Again, I am no expert, but just fascinated and lucky to have the chance to learn from an experienced musician, in both styles.

January 19, 2013 at 05:50 PM · Peter Charles...I'm glad to see that you have not quitted the earth as your profile suggests! You were silent so long, I began to wonder. Welcome back!

January 19, 2013 at 09:16 PM · Lyndon,

I assume that you do not have perfect pitch, because you don't quite understand how it works. It is not that perfect pitch performers cannot play in tune at 415. It's that we cannot play an open A string and hear a note other than A. It would be like picking up an apple and it being blue, or seeing a tree that is purple. Everything that should be normal is not, and therefore playing is almost impossible. It does not reflect the performers ability to play in tune at 415.

January 20, 2013 at 12:51 AM · Lyndon, I believe the challenge for perfect pitch and using a period fiddle is the expectation that the A will sound like A=440 and then of course it does not. So the key signature really does sound different for those with perfect pitch. Yes, they can learn a new concept of what A means, A = 415 on Baroque fiddle, but it is more difficult. If you expected a red apple, and got a blue one, you'd have to learn to expect a blue apple sometimes and all the other differently colored fruits in that lower tuning. Watched a player with perfect pitch play a period fiddle for the first time, and it took some time not to reach for the notes they were used to playing in certain spots. Perfect pitch is not such an easy thing to have.

January 20, 2013 at 12:59 AM · I have perfect pitch, but I have no problem playing when I tune to A415, A440, A432, or whatever pitch. My left hand retains the muscle memory where I should place the finger for each note, and I just go with it...

January 20, 2013 at 02:01 AM · Randy

Thanks for your welcome. I had completely forgotten that I had left that message in my profile, and I have been out of the loop for several months, about six months in fact, where I have not played a note.

Coming back from several weeks abroad, I thought maybe I should start playing again. Initially, for the first two or three days it was quite promising, but I've hit a brick wall, and this means I have two roads I can take. One is a dead end - no point in playing anymore, the other may have a tunnel with a glimmer of light at the end. I have no idea where that road will take me. I do know that the dead end is appealing and I may have to take that one, either out of choice or desperation.

Just a word about the discussion regarding perfect pitch and playing at different pitches for example A = 415 or whatever, instead of the usual A = 440. It does not just effect people with perfect pitch, but also people like me who have aquired some sort of pitch recognition, which may not be absolue like some, but nevertheless pretty close. If for instance I play an A (which should be 440) on a piano, but it is a little flat, I know it's down by whatever in pitch, maybe a quarter of a tone, maybe a semitone. This means I find it as hard as the perfect pitch people to play with that instrument, and totally unsatisfactory, if I have to tune down to match it. In that case I would rather not play at all. I'm sure we have all played in an orchestra at some point where the organ is flat, and we've all struggled to get by. The only reason we continue with the pain is because we have been booked to play and have to suffer the pain for the money, but it leaves an awful taste in the mouth, like having an extraordinarily bad meal.

Also, it's not just the A I recognise, but namy other notes too. I can often hear what notes are being played, helped of course by the fact that open strings when used are instantly recognisable, even sometimes at weird pitches. (By weird, I mean weird to me with my semi-imperfect pitch ...)

January 20, 2013 at 02:05 AM · "Is Perfect Pitch another way to describe an inability to relate the note pitches? When you play a scale does a light come on in your head when you reach 440? Or is it sheer vanity ? The idea of anything perfect seems a dangerous concept . Peter may enjoy the frisson of two lots of ruffled feathers."

John

I don't really understand what you are saying. I would say that the light is on with every note, not just A = 440. And if you are playing say a quarter tone lower, then there is no note equalling exactly A = 440.

I don't understand the "ruffled feathers" bit in your post either, but on the other hand I find it impossible to understand my own mind as well. It may have flipped.

January 20, 2013 at 02:11 AM · "Well then I'll bet the orchestras playing at A445 don't want anyone with "perfect" pitch, or let me guess that's not a problem as their pitch is only perfect when they want it to be!!"

Lyndon

I'm not sure if you are reffering to my post or someone elses. However, I wonder how much you play, or if you play at all? I'm only asking as it seems to me that your answers are often pitched (pun intended) at about a 90 degrees angle to most of us. Often lateral thinking is good, but your lateral thinking has me stumped, but maybe that's my obvious lack of brain cells.

January 20, 2013 at 04:13 AM · Huh? This is getting really confusing. I don't think the people with perfect pitch are saying they cannot play period instruments. I think they are saying they are sensitive to hearing certain notes in certain places on the violin, and it's just a paradigm shift to switch to a different tuning.

January 20, 2013 at 04:17 AM · And let me be really clear, I love the lower tuning of period instruments. :)

January 21, 2013 at 03:13 PM · Thanks John

Yes, the only person around here with a ram's head worthy of butting in where he's not particularly wanted is the guy with faith only in decrepid old fiddles and who doesn't play a note and obviously knows nothing about pitch.

But what can you do, civilised conversations are sometimes brought down by know it alls, even when they really don't know much at all!

But to get back to the civilised and thoughtful conversations, I'm sort of interested in the comment made by Erica (before she was confused, seemingly, by you know who) - when she mentioned about using a baroque bow on a modern violin. I hope she might say a bit more about that, as I had a conversation a year or so back with a famous retired soloist who hinted at something similar.

January 21, 2013 at 05:49 PM · A number of years ago I played baroque violin in a performance at the Metropolitan Museum which included a Handel g minor organ concerto with keyboard soloist Anthony Newman. In the first rehearsal Dr. Newman realized very quickly that the organ was tuned to A 440, but the band was tuned to A 415. He just said "no problem", and on the spot transposed the solo part down to F# minor. This is a true story.

January 21, 2013 at 06:53 PM · Hi!

So, as I mentioned (maybe?) we study with a teacher who plays modern violin as well as being a period performer. Very lucky.

My daughter has had the opportunity to use a baroque bow on her modern violin when she is working on Bach, Biber, etc. and finds it very enjoyable to use. She says it is lighter, easier to play double and triple stops with, does not "drag" on the string so much, loves spicatto, and is easier for string crossings.

I think there are a number of recording violinists who have or are using period bows for their recordings of Bach, even on modern violins and modern tuning. Nicola Bennedeti, and I think Anne Sophie Mutter too.

Evidently Ifshin and Shar have some student baroque bows for just about $100-$200 that are fine for exploring how they work.

The baroque bow does not create that thick, into the string sound of the modern bow, but allows more, or maybe just easier articulation of the notes that are important vs. the notes that are not as important (I have had the luxury of sitting in over 12 years of violin and viola lessons with 2 kids, plus my own lessons, and have learned SO much. Not that I can play it, but I get to hear it taught and demonstrated, so this is my best re-cap.)

January 21, 2013 at 06:55 PM · Plus, Baroque bows are just so pretty!

January 21, 2013 at 07:25 PM · I never tune ANYTHING of mine to 440, be it violin, guitar, piano, or synth. Lots of knowledge has been lost to us or down right stolen and hidden over the ages, and 440hz is actually damaging to our bodies and souls.

Here's a little teaser on the subject.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYUBz0wZGLk

January 21, 2013 at 07:31 PM · A better and shorter explanation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=P5ILuyaZIO4

January 21, 2013 at 09:18 PM · Thanks for that info Erica. I did hear some of Ms Benedetti's playing using such a bow on her (modern?) violin, or rather modern set up, and I thought it pretty good at the time.

I will investigate.

January 21, 2013 at 09:32 PM · You are most welcome. :)

January 22, 2013 at 12:05 AM · Lyndon,

Another quick note about people with perfect pitch. If the performer is dedicated enough, they can rewrite the piece that they are performing a semitone lower. This is cheating, but it allows us to get by without the struggle of our world being thrown off.

January 22, 2013 at 03:31 AM · Years ago I worked with a woman who took up the baroque oboe. She had perfect pitch.

To her the problem was that when she saw a note she heard it in her head. So when playing in A=415 what she saw and what she played did not match.

She was eventually able to over come this, but initially she described it as being somewhat less comfortable than running ones nails across a blackboard.*

I wonder if many musicians if told a piece is in a particular key would have trouble with dictation should the pitch not be their standard, be it 440, 432, 415, 392 or what ever.

*A blackboard was a device used in the past to allow one to write with chalk and then be erased and then written on again. These were replace by dry markers and video screens. If you used the chalk wrong or ran you nails across it you could create a screech which could send shills up your spine.)

January 22, 2013 at 04:14 AM · Lyndon, I believe if you learned that A=415 first, then you would have that frame of reference for your pitches. Since most musicians learn first that A=440, that is the sound of an A to them. They expect a note on a page, an A, to sound like 440. A at 415 is just not what is expected. Again, I watched a musician with perfect pitch adjust to Baroque tuning, and it's just harder when the expected notes are different. I don't think anyone is saying that perfect pitch is somehow better. It just happens for some people, and not for others. You have it or you don't. I think it's easier for some things and harder for others.

January 22, 2013 at 04:15 AM · I do remember blackboards, btw. :)

January 22, 2013 at 07:21 PM · I think that's what I have been saying. It is more difficult to adjust to a different tuning if you have perfect pitch and A=440 has been your standard. I am told that you just develop another set of pitches for A=415. It's not a trick - you either have or don't have perfect pitch - it just is.

January 22, 2013 at 07:25 PM · one thing i've discovered is the margin of error for finger placement at 415 hz. is a lot less forgiving than at higher frequencies - what sounded ok at 440 hz. doesn't at 415 - you have to be spot on. i'm getting better at making quick adjustments.

January 22, 2013 at 09:17 PM · I have perfect pitch. But it was originally calibrated two semitones low - not just the one semitone that A415 is below A440 - because my first instrument was the B-flat cornet. After a 25-year hiatus I started playing concert-pitch instruments: guitar and mandolin, then violin and viola. My sense of pitch quickly recalibrated itself. But if I hear brass music, I seem to be able to quickly shift back to B-flat tuning. I think it's like learning alto clef - a bit mind-twisting at first, but perfectly doable.

January 23, 2013 at 12:49 PM · Thanks for the input Charlie! :)

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