"A" going UP in orchestras and instrument damage?!?!

July 18, 2018, 10:35 AM · Someone told me this the other day and it sounded totally spurious, but just checking. This guy told me that over time, "A" has gone from 440 up slightly higher in orchestras--ie, everyone is tuning higher--and as a result, string players are having to have their instruments "braced" to handle the strain. Could this possible be true?? It sounds insane, esp. the part about "bracing" LOL.

Replies (25)

Edited: July 19, 2018, 1:02 AM · Only partly true. The string instruments can take a little extra tension, but the winds and brass instruments are designed, calibrated to 440. The lead oboe can easily fix that by refusing to tune above 440. Some of the blame goes to 1st violin section players. When playing high, in a loud tutti passage, the section player will not hear himself when he is in tune with the chord. To check to see if they are playing the right note they will unintentionally push the pitch higher, or let the vibrato push the pitch higher. Then there is stretched tuning, which piano tuners know about. Our hearing is not perfectly linear on the top octaves. You can check that for yourself by tuning your E string to the piano, then play the double octave harmonic E, compare that to the same pitch on the piano. That last solo note in Scheherezadhe, the double harmonic E, needs to pushed higher.
Edited: July 18, 2018, 12:04 PM · Hi,

As a performer, it is my observation in my experience that ever stiffer modern strings, and the excess pressure in bowing taught by many schools (or required by these strings) are for the most part, way more stressful to instruments than a slightly higher A. Higher and higher As (many orchestras now tune to 442 and some higher) make the sound brighter and do make it a little harder on the instrument, but not as much as other factors. In many ways, that is why you see more and more Guarneris being used and less Strads are the Strads aren't responding well to these changes since they are not designed or meant to be played that way. Some of the things done for instruments do include things for the "New York" setup for example with a very tight soundpost which allows for more bow pressure, but is very dangerous for instruments. Some New York makers were making new instruments with a soundpost patch at some point to limit the problems, although I don't know if this is still being done.

And in my experience, the oboist doesn't decide the pitch for tuning of orchestras; they just give the A that they are required to give. The challenging thing when you are a travelling musician is that different cities are using different As and that makes it hard for the ear to be constantly adapting in my experience.

Cheers!

July 18, 2018, 5:57 PM · An audition in 1975(?) for Boston reflected a pitch of 442. And that was dictated from management.
July 18, 2018, 7:29 PM · Interesting! I had no idea.
July 18, 2018, 8:02 PM · I have heard of it but haven't had to endure it myself, since I decided to quit doing orchestra at 21 y/o -- about 6 months from the end of my degree program. This pitch inflation mania is yet another reason I'm thankful I decided not to go into the music business -- and I keep finding new reasons every year, it seems, to be thankful I made the decision.

We can thank singers for putting their collective foot down. It's bad enough to have the extra tension on the strings -- I myself won't tune above 440; but just think of the singers having their "instruments" pulled up this way. I've posted the following link before -- an interview with the late Renata Tebaldi. Just search for the character string 440 on the page -- and you'll find the paragraph right away. The whole article is a good read, but be sure to read at least the 440 paragraph:

http://www.renata-tebaldi.com/rasponi.htm

July 19, 2018, 1:48 AM · There's a good Wikipedia article on this:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concert_pitch

As you can see from the article, it's not a recent thing and orchestras now are much more standardised to A being in the range 440-443 than they ever were before.

I have never heard of a string instrument needing to be altered because orchestras play at too high a pitch. So I suspect that part is BS. As Christian points out there are a whole bunch of other changes happening to increase the tension in instruments that makes more of a difference than the less than 1% difference between 440 and 443.

July 19, 2018, 5:46 AM · Conditions in a concert hall can make the brass go sharp, so everyone has to tune up a little - I don't know by how much, but it's audible. This happened last Saturday in a concert in Clifton Cathedral when we had a general retune after the second movement of Beethoven 9.

It's also worth noting that gut strings, with their naturally lower tension, can be tuned higher without putting any undesirable strain on the instrument.

Some historical high pitches (in the days when everyone used gut strings):
1856 Opera de Paris 449
1857 San Carlo Naples 445
1859 Vienne 456
1879 Steinway pianos (USA) 457
(Source: Dictionnaire de Musique, Roland de Candide)

July 19, 2018, 8:39 AM · Adding to Trevor, A=465ish was common for 17th cent. Venice.

Pitch level has more implications to singers (e.g. if music was composed for a lower pitch level like A=392 and singers feel it higher than they like, or vice versa.)

Bruce Hayne's The Story of "A" is a good book to start :)

https://www.amazon.com/History-Performing-Pitch-Bruce-Haynes/dp/0810841851

July 19, 2018, 9:15 AM · "In many ways, that is why you see more and more Guarneris being used and less Strads are the Strads aren't responding well to these changes since they are not designed or meant to be played that way."

If you mean more REAL Guarneris are being chosen instead of REAL Strads, then you have some more explaining to do. For one thing, there are way more Strads in the world than Guarneris, possibly by a factor of 4. People get a Guarneri either by being very, very lucky (a loan from a foundation), or they have a huge bank account. And I think that when musicians are lucky enough to have the choice, they don't base it on what concert pitch is. They weigh all the same web of factors the rest of us do: tonal quality, ease of playing, dynamic range, etc.

I doubt that, aside from what people intuit, there is any real evidence that pitch itself is doing anything to instruments, or what level of pitch would do that, or how long it would take.

July 19, 2018, 10:07 AM · When making a significant change to the tuning (usually up) you should always check immediately that the bridge hasn't started leaning one way or the other as a result. If so, then correct it carefully to return the bridge to its proper verticality with respect to the top plate. If you don't know how to do this safely then get someone to show you. If this isn't done then there is likely to be a reduction in tone quality, and in a worst case the bridge could collapse.

If the bridge is bent then get it replaced immediately by a luthier.

July 19, 2018, 11:43 AM · It's not string players who have the big problems. A couple of years ago my piano tuner told me that for a concert by a visiting Czech orchestra in our local City Hall (which I had attended) they had insisted on A=442 which meant he had to completely re-tune the hall's Steinway.

At one of the climaxes in the Rachmaninoff piano concerto a string broke! I guess it was more paid work for him, he had to fix it as well as taking the instrument back to A=440 the next day.

July 19, 2018, 12:30 PM · I actually prefer higher than 440, whether it is 441 to 447. Of course I see no problem with 440. I just feel that no instrument will explode at 445, even with years of "pitch abuse", unless maybe you leave an instrument with high tension steel strings on for 70 years pitched at 460hz (an exaggeration, to be sure.)

I am sure singers are more vulnerable. That said some people are a)uncomfortable with constant shifting tuning systems and/or b) very sensitive to a very brilliant tone, in which case I understand their problem, but I feel the arguments should read more as: "I don't like it" vs "I don't like it, and many more shouldn't either, based on this-biased-evidence suppporting my personal preference."

(As usual, the above is my opinion-if you strongly disagree, it's OK to just ignore what I posted and continue to believe whatever it may be you are convinced of. Enjoy your music-making any way you prefer.)

Edited: July 20, 2018, 1:16 PM · Modern wind instruments like clarinet aren't necessarily "set" to 440. As a clarinet player, I can adjust my instrument to play between A-438 and A-445 or so without any issues. This allows me to deal with playing spaces that might be very cold and the pitch very low, as well as cope with ensembles or pianos that tune to A-442 or higher.

In the Performing Arts Center that I teach in, all of our instruments are tuned by our Steinway technician to A-442, from the concert grand on the main stage to the uprights in the practice rooms.

Edit: clarifying "wind instruments"

Edited: July 19, 2018, 3:26 PM · Hi,

Scott, I am talking about real Guarneris and Strads, though the violins modelled after them do behave in similar ways as well. I was discussing this with a soloist friend recently who is playing currently a Del Gésu, and has played several Guarneris in recent years, and has had the option of choosing between the two (and the ones I have tried myself), and we were finding that modern setups and especially more modern stiffer strings are being better supported by Guarneris than Strads. I don't think that the A going between 440 and 443 is an important factor, it is minimal. But in terms of the other factors, Strads just don't react as well to higher tensions and pressures as do Del Gésu, at least in the majority. Maybe your experience is different and if so, please share it, but mine and my colleague's concurred in this regard.

Cheers!

July 19, 2018, 3:56 PM ·
July 20, 2018, 12:19 PM · @Gene, thank you for that clarification. Yes, all of the wind instruments have adjustable tuning. I was thinking of the actual spacing of the holes, and how that must be optimized for a specific tuning. The brass instruments also have tuning slides for each valve.
July 20, 2018, 1:15 PM · @Joel, you're absolutely right on that. The best woodwind makers get the dimensions as close as is reasonable, and the players are left to individual air and embouchure adjustments to get the pitch to where they want it. Of course that accounts for the poorly-made instruments that are impossible to play in tune no matter how good the player is. :)
July 22, 2018, 4:16 PM · Many wind players I have to play with have difficulties tuning down to 440...
July 22, 2018, 8:47 PM · As any violinist knows, there’s no reason to play out of tune when you can just play sharp.

Back to the Boston Symphony, they were once higher than the 440– the Munch policy, perhaps?— but are back down to 440 now, I believe.

July 23, 2018, 12:04 AM · I'm surprised nobody has posted this yet.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnhlQUBsd6g

Edited: July 24, 2018, 10:56 AM · Mary Ellen, that's a wonderful resource! All we need now is for someone to trawl through the audio with an audio editor, identify the pitch of each item, and convert it to the A equivalent for convenient comparison ;)
July 24, 2018, 11:40 PM · You don't have to do any technical analysis at all to notice how the pitch goes up and down. :-)
July 25, 2018, 5:59 AM · Wow--that was interesting. Didn't even seem as if it could be the same piece!
July 25, 2018, 10:11 AM · Please don't assume that was the recorded pitch. There were plenty of record producers who needed a selection sped up or slowed down "a bit" to fit with the time constraints they faced with the 45/33 vinyl, and they didn't have pitch control when they changed the speed.
July 25, 2018, 2:36 PM · Jim, that might be a factor in the earlier recordings but not in the later ones when LPs were available.

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