Is tuning A String to 440 Hz sacrosanct?

September 30, 2004 at 07:30 PM · I am a novice to western classical music and I have chosen Violin to learn this, a potentially dangerous combination :) . I am just a week in to my preparations, which included dusting my old violin where I had learned another style of music (Indian Classical for those who are interested to know), learning to prop it between by collar bone and chin with minimal or no left hand support (by far the most difficult exercise so far and thanks are due to Sue Donim for her advise), and tuning the violin. I am yet to find a teacher in Bombay (India) who can actually teach me. This question has to do with tuning

Conventionally the violin strings are tuned by tuning the A string to 440 Hz and tuning other strings to create a perfect fifth.

My question is why is 440Hz sacrosanct? If the objective is to have 2:3 ratio (which I believe produces the perfect fifth), then can't I just tune A to an arbitrary frequency and tune the rest of the strings in relation to this frequency?

The reason I want to do this is, tuning A to 440 increases the tension on a tuned E string so much that very often it breaks. This is probably because of the low quality strings, but getting good strings in Bombay (India) is a problem.The best I get here are elctrometal(don't ask me what electrometal is!) strings that costs around $8 per set of 4

By tuning A to an arbitrary lower frequency and the other strings in relation to that, I am still able to get consonance on G-D and A-E strings when played together. And I am able to play the C Major scale (very slowly, of course!) with this tuning which sounds alright to me

Is this OK or do I have to stick to 440 and get better strings somehow.

Sundar

Replies (26)

September 30, 2004 at 08:22 PM · You mean that you tune all of your strings relatively lower? And by how much? Your instrument is created to project those specific pitches, and strings are supposed to be created to tune to those specific pitches as well, although I've never heard of the brand that you mention. Here's a couple of thoughts:

First, where is the E string breaking? It may be a problem with the instrument, not the string. Sometimes, a string is putting pressure on the E up in the peg box. Sometimes, the bridge is pinching, which can be fixed by getting a new bridge that doesn't do that. If it alwyas breaks at the fine tuner (happened to me), then the tuner is at fault, and you could probably get that replaced easily, as well.

Second, How difficult would it be to have an order shipped to you? Could you look into ordering strings online or from a catalog?

Third, what do you know about the maker of your violin? Sometimes, someone makes what appears to be violins, but are just guesses that they made after looking at a violin and then attempting to carve something that looks like one. I had a friend who returned from Nepal with two of these that he found really cheap, say $25 each, and they weren't even playable since they were carved by someone who really didn't know how to make violins. Not that this is is true in your case, but I just want to be sure that when you start to play the violin you know a little about what you're getting into.

September 30, 2004 at 11:41 PM · Greetings,

if your e string is breaking where it goes roudn the adjuster then yiou need to get a small protector slipped over the end. E strings should not break easily. What sort are you using?

Yes, a440 is pretty mandatory. tese day 442 is mor elike the minimum,

Cheers,

Buri

October 1, 2004 at 06:29 AM · What's this 442 business? It makes me edgy! No, actually, I hardly notice the difference, except when people go off on it in our community orchestra, how they can't tune to the piano because of 442 versus 440, or whatever, and then they go and play a quarter-step out of tune, so what's two cents got to do with anything?

Sorry, venting... my two cents!

October 1, 2004 at 10:49 AM · Greetings,

Emily, the history of violin tuning is rather murky and it has not always been a straight progresison from lower to high although that has been theb overall trend.

The extra few notches do produce a more brilliant sound and , I think, had their roots in Europe, possibly with the Vienna Philharmonic leading the way although I am somehwta vague about this....

a442 is now fairly universal. It is what the Japanase piano manufacturers (Yamaha etc) tune to so it the norm in the recital hall whether you like it or not.

The extra presusr eon instruments is certainly hastening their decline. Rather like an old fogey wearing high heels and tight jeans,

Cheers,

Buri

October 1, 2004 at 11:13 AM · Thanks Emily and Buri.

Emily, I think what I have is a violin or atleast something that sounds like a violin:)I think I need to refurbish the violin a bit as the instrument has been lying idle for a long time.This should take care of the problems you have pointed out.

Buri, I use a pitch pipe that has the notes marked on them. I just blow the A note and tune the A string. Would it hurt me terribly if this pipe produced 440 instead f 442? I have no way of knowing this

Thanks

Sundar

October 1, 2004 at 11:57 AM · one possibility is to use baroque tuning - 412 if i'm not mistaken.

Or, use swstrings.com and order strings via the net.

October 1, 2004 at 07:15 PM · A pitch pipe will give you all kinds of A's, depending on how you blow it.

October 1, 2004 at 10:39 PM · Greetings,

Ben, there is no such thing as a standard baroque tuning. It varied from place to place, composer to composer and so forth. One factor was the difference in pitch of pipe organs . Maybe baroque orchestras of today are reaching somekind of standardized figure- I don"t know because I rarely listen to them (!!!!!!) but I don"t think it would be a slow as you are proposing.

Only prunes are one of life's constants

Cheers,

Buri

October 1, 2004 at 11:22 PM · speaking of baroque tuning, is it ok to tune down a regular violin? i heard a cd of bach played at a=400 and i tuned my violin down to try--it was really interesting and satisfying to play, but is it bad for the violin?

October 2, 2004 at 01:44 AM · I tune my violin down quite often (by the way, "standard" pitch for baroque players is 415, although there can be variations when playing with an individual instrument such as an organ or oboe that was made at a different pitch--a lot of baroque reed instruments seem to be about 407 and we are aware of some baroque organs that were tuned as high as 492 in certain Italian towns/villages/cities/whatever. The classical period pianoforte, according to standard practice, usually tuned to 430). It is a bit stressful on the instrument in some ways... it's incredibly hard to keep the strings in tune when you keep switching back and forth. If you change from 440 to 415 you will constantly go sharp for awhile; likewise if you change from 415 to 440 you will continually find your strings going flat until the violin adjusts. If you stay at one tuning for some time the instrument seems to become more accustomed to that pitch and resonate with it... if you switch to the other "A" it will seem a bit dull for a couple days. Life would be so much simpler if I could just afford a baroque violin (or even a bow)!!!

'Erie (-:

October 2, 2004 at 11:11 PM · pitch goes all over the place. in the 40s it was common to tune as high as A456.

A440 is an imposed standard and not a definite one. Mathematically A440Hz is unsound. A mathematically sound tuning is C256Hz which reduces to 1Hz in 9 octaves. This is the tuning that was adopted in the 19th century by French orchestras after studies by mathematicians. Another mathematically correct tuning is D640Hz which reduces in 5 octaves to 20Hz, the lowest recognized frequency most human ears hear audibly.

FYI:

C256Hz = A430Hz, which sounds flat to our modern ears.

D640Hz = A452Hz, which is where orchestras are headed now.

October 3, 2004 at 02:41 AM · Hmm... I always tune to a 442.

October 3, 2004 at 03:34 AM · 440Hz is flat. ;)

I think it's very benefitial if one is able to tune from 440 all the way to 445 without intonation problems. I do have a lot of trouble tuning to 430 for baroque playing....(perfect pitch is a stumbling block for a lot of people in baroque playing but if practiced enough one can think in transposition... just like a violinist might need to when playing viola... until it becomes natural).

Preston

October 3, 2004 at 03:48 AM · hmm to further that comment by Preston....so someone with perfect pitch in today's society and perfect pitch in the baroque period would have 2 different concepts of pitch. yet both would have "perfect pitch" isnt that sorta contradictory? =/

October 3, 2004 at 12:10 PM · Obligation of tuning A string to 442Hz is the modern oboe's fault .Because of some adaptations to make all trill sounding in tune holes distances has been changed .However part of this evolution come from violin soloist who find a better sounding in higher frequencies.

Most harpsichords do not support tuning higher than 415.To 44O Hz either strings break or the harpsicord (which is normally not temperamental) is out of tune

October 3, 2004 at 09:12 PM · I disagree slightly with DW...by my calculation, D-640 is equivalent to A-480, a whole tone sharper than A-432.

October 3, 2004 at 09:16 PM · I forgot to add that there is a natural limit to the rise in pitch standards, namely, the accommodation of the human singing voice. For that reason I think D-640 is a long way off.

October 3, 2004 at 11:12 PM · I live in the Scottish Highlands, and occasionally play at weddings where we are asked to play with bagpipes(!!!!!)Pipes have risen in pitch in the last 100 years or so from about A440 to A460 which means we play effectively in around Bb for tunes supposedly in A.I certainly wouldn't care to tune the violin up, and to tune down significantly don't work on the modern fiddle. re perfect pitch-it doesn't necessarily signify that the person so blessed has a better ear than those with relative pitch, it is really a memory ability;lots of violinists have something close to it when they put the fiddle under their chin

October 4, 2004 at 12:20 AM · My understanding is that modern strings are designed to work best within a fairly narrow range of tensions. Thus large variation from a typical sounding length or pitch might well have undesirable effects.

October 5, 2004 at 01:46 AM · 442 for me

October 6, 2004 at 12:42 AM · Hi Sundar,

my question for you? where did you purchase your violin from? what are you using to tune you A? a pitch-pipe?

I was a resident of bombay till i was 15 yrs. old. have been in the states ever since. during my trips back i visited a couple of music stores looking for violins. I was extremely disappointed by the quality. The guy said that most of them are made in calcutta. I would attribute the string breaking to the instrument. upon examining the pegs, the holes, and the scroll, i couldn't help but notice the lack of attention to detail. But then again, my sample size is a bit small. I only saw a handful of violins at two places.

October 7, 2004 at 07:06 AM · i don't stress about that stuff, i often play chamber music at 442, but i dont think much of it.

October 16, 2004 at 10:29 PM · The reason pprofessional orchestras prefer the higher pitches is because of string/winds balance. If an orchestra playing at A440 raises its pitch to A442 the result will be a more prominant string sound. Wind instruments do not appreciably change volune when they change pitch, but string instruments do get louder as they raise their pitches.

October 18, 2004 at 02:34 AM · huh, that makes sense, i've never heard that before.

October 26, 2004 at 10:32 AM · Hi everybody,

I almost forgot that I had made this post initially. And I am pleasantly surprised that my question has generated so much interest.

Since my first post, I have been successful in tuning to A 440 hz after refurbishing my violin, particularly the pegs and fine tuning screws. But still the original question of why 440 or 442 or any such frequency should be a standard is still unanswered. As many have pointed out we used to have many other standards for tuning and they are also right in their own respect. May be the answer lies in the fact that you normally tune to the Middle A produced by a standard Piano as this would allow you to play in harmony with the other instruments.

Vineet, the best string instruments are available with Furtado and Co (http://www.palmshowindia.com/ExhibitorsList/Palm2004/furtados.htm) . I don’t know if you had a chance to visit them. But yes, most Indian Violins are made in Calcutta and not of very high quality.

Sundar

October 27, 2004 at 06:34 AM · i think that was just the norm. imagine, if the major piano makers tuned to 440 in vienna or something, then i'd imagine everybody in vienna would be also tuning to 440. also, if you're taught that 440 = a, then thats probably what you'll do.

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