Switching between 443 and 420 freqently - does it give stress to the instrument?

Edited: November 25, 2018, 3:59 PM · One of the amateur groups I'm playing in is a small baroque ensemble. Not of the almost religious "informed" business, simply for fun and pleasure. Most of us use modern instruments and avoid plain gut, but we still tune down to 420 Hz. Outside the ensemble I usually need to tune back to 443.
One thing that annoys me about this is that the strings need some time after retuning to settle in again and keep their tension. But what really concerns me is the question if this permanent up and down in string tension and therefore changing pressure on the top plate gives too much stress to the instrument, similar to rapid changes in humidity and temperature which we usually try to avoid.
Any experience with that? Am I safe and fine like that, or should I get another instrument for baroque 420?

Replies (31)

November 25, 2018, 4:28 PM · Your instrument should be fine, but the bridge and nut may wear out a bit. Put lots of graphite in all the slots.
Edited: November 25, 2018, 8:53 PM · you will spend more money on strings because stretching and relaxing them leads to shorter life span. Not to mention rapid deterioration of sound quality.
By the way, arguably "standard" (if there is such a thing) baroque pitch today is 415Hz.
November 25, 2018, 8:44 PM · I would get a second instrument. And you might as well get a real baroque violin while you're at it. The tuning of the strings is not the only difference.
November 26, 2018, 6:33 AM · 'you will spend more money on strings because stretching and relaxing them leads to shorter life span. Not to mention rapid deterioration of sound quality.'

Rocky, upon what do you base this assertion?

Edited: November 26, 2018, 6:54 AM · There's no scientific evidence for that. It's
Just hearsay and assumption .

And no HIPP, please. Just play the music...

November 26, 2018, 7:45 AM · Instrument will be fine :) Strings will be not the happiest but they'll get used to it.

- from a person who switch to 392, 415, 430, 466, and scordatura on a regular basis

November 26, 2018, 3:11 PM · Guglielmus, upon my own experience. Pirastro's instructions used to state the similar - string will not sound at its best if tuned to different frequencies.
Edited: November 26, 2018, 3:36 PM · Hm, quite divergent opinions. Great!

Mary Ellen, what would be the advantages of playing a baroque instrument? I mean for someone like me - a late starting bloody amateur mainly fighting to survive in all that Bach and Vivaldi, and just happy and grateful for having the opportunity to play together... (*somehow*)
I don't want to talk badly about my own efforts or my colleagues, but... most of what we currently do really isn't next to semipro performance level. Maybe it's the lack of a strong leader we suffer from, but exactly this is part of what we enjoy in this setting, and it's a lot of noodling around... (In contrast to the other groups where I'm sitting with my viola and where it really is about performance now and then, 2x2 concert programmes per year.) I love baroque music and would like to get further into that, so how would I profit from a baroque violin?

November 26, 2018, 7:14 PM · Baroque violins are set up for the lower tension of A415; the angle of the neck is slightly less. Modern instruments do not sound their best at the lower pitch.

Also, 443? Holy moly that is sharp. My orchestra tunes to 441 and I hate it.

Edited: November 26, 2018, 8:38 PM · Baroque violins are not "made" for 415, they were just as likely to be tuned higher like 450, and the neck angle including the fingerboard could be lower but often was just as high as modern, the neck length was often shorter but not always, there are really no 100% set differences other than they usually had a wedged fingerboard and pure gut strings.
November 26, 2018, 9:48 PM · One thing is you will really confuse the molecules in the top plate if you're just "playing in" your violin. LOL
November 27, 2018, 12:45 AM · "Also, 443? Holy moly that is sharp"

I think that's not out of the norm for many orchestras in North America and Europe and around the world...

For folks like Nuuska, it's the performance practice issues like beat hierarchy, just intonation and learning to play in a temperament, awareness of use of vibrato, and understanding the music through the bass line, and articulation from a baroque bow that is the most rewarding.

I would play with and listen to an ensemble of peeps well-versed in the style of composers over people steamrolling over all the notes but use "historical instruments" that have gut strings and proper tension. :) All this pitch level, string-tension stuff is pretty superficial.

Edited: November 27, 2018, 2:33 AM · I agree with Dorian: awareness of what the music is supposed to sound like is not about the exact pitch (at the time there was no universally standard pitch), but about a way of phrasing, and expressing the beat.

I expect your strings are deeply unhappy about this going up and down. My luthier just told me a while ago he was building an instrument for a professional violist who plays in two ensembles, one 440 and one 415, and he's going to have two instruments because it's bad to go back and forth on one instrument. I need to add that he couldn't really explain why it was supposed to be bad. Not to me, in any case.

Edited: November 27, 2018, 3:16 AM · Extraordinary how so many players (e.g. Nuuska, Cotton) as well as listeners profess to be anti HIP, which has been around and thriving for 50 years now. If you can remember how baroque orchestral music used to be played in the days of HUP (when tempi were leaden and every crotchet was played with the bow glued to the string for the full duration) you might concede that huge advances have been made. The best practitioners of HIP aren't preaching a doctrine but exploring possibilities and setting an example which others may or may not care to emulate. When we address music of any period we don't "just play" it with an instinctive sense of the appropriate style, we incorporate what we have hopefully learned from our own experience and that of others. In fact today we are all historically informed, without necessarily realising it.
November 27, 2018, 8:00 AM · The short answer is problems depend on how conservatively your violin is built and the material and structure of the strings you use. If your violin is worth the cost of a new car and your strings cost $50+ each, you might be more cautious.

The following is probably too much information, but it might give you enough understanding to make a more informed decision.

Going from 420 to 443 on the A string changes the string tension about 10%. Only a fraction of that ends up as increased force through the bridge and directly onto the top plate. Most of the change in tension is applied as a bending stress across the violin.

Of course, you have a change in tension on the other three strings to also consider. The change is in the same ball park. So the total change on the bridge is non-trivial but somewhat on the small side. The increased bending load is also non-trivial. A conservatively built or structurally sound violin is unlikely to suffer any structural problems from the change.

But if the plate is rather thin to start and has the sound post jammed tightly into the violin, you run an increased risk of causing a post crack or crushing damage at the sound post ends.

A frequent 10% change in tension on a string that is already stretched rather tight would likely suffer some level of delamination of the multiple fibers that make-up the string, or delamination of the coating (nickel, silver, e.g.), from the core. This would cause a sound change in the strings.

Modern strings a closely engineered to play their best at a small tension range and play length range. The decrease from 440 to 420 can result in undesirable tonal change and bow response for some strings. My practical experience is this is most noticeable on thick strings like the G (and C for viola). You may have to experiment with different string materials and construction to find one that works in the frequency range you are using.

Stretchy materials used in violin strings will exhibit a behavior called hysteresis creep. It is a type of asymmetrical permanent stretching that causes the string to get thinner and thinner with each reduction and increase in stress. Eventually it will break prematurely at some point of high stress, like the nut, bridge or peg hole.

My practical experience suggests that raising the frequency of the E string is most likely to cause some structural issue, especially if it is a solid, metallic string. Small changes at the peg can rapidly increase the tension on the string and on the violin. Tension increases as the SQUARE of the change in the frequency. So an E string made of a more stretchy material than steel might be "safer" to use for frequent tuning changes.

The thicker strings, like G (and C string for viola) seem to be more susceptible to delamination and breakage problems.

November 27, 2018, 8:23 AM · "The following is probably too much information, but it might give you enough understanding to make a more informed decision". Enough to realise that this is another grey area with no clear signposts
November 27, 2018, 2:05 PM · "I think that's not out of the norm for many orchestras in North America and Europe and around the world..."

Obviously orchestras vary but yes, 443 is on the high end. My orchestra tunes to 441, as does the Boston Symphony. The New York Phil uses 442. I think orchestras in Germany and Austria are more likely to use 443 but in North America (where I live and work), 443 is sharp.

Edited: November 27, 2018, 3:47 PM · Yup, Mary Ellen, 443 is very common here. Many symphonies tune like that, it is common on the local conservatory and music school, and also my own private teacher (who is from Southern Europe) insists on that. Personally I'm most comfortable somewhere around 338 Hz - maybe because this is my personal absolute pitch a', but I also feel that my violin sounds most pleasant if tuned a little bit below 440.

It's a structurally healthy instrument in the prime of it's youth since it's only a bit more than 50 years young. Solidly built with a strong sound. Set up by a high end luthier. So I don't think there is an increased risk of anything to happen.

Steve, there is a misunderstanding. There is nothing I'd say against HIP (which often isn't really that historically informed, according to recent research results especially on historic gut strings), and in fact there is nothing worse than Bach being played like a romantic showpiece. But one can overdo just anything. What I wanted to express was that we focus more on the music than on "doing everything the correct way". And that a baroque instrument isn't a basic requirement for playing with us. It's about fun and music, rather than rules and science.

If it was only the strings that would suffer, then I could live with it for a while. On the long run, it might be even cost effective to get a second instrument - but it still would take me decades to play down so many sets of strings that they would pay off a decent baroque violin able to catch up with my current one. Anyway, retuning all the time sucks...

November 27, 2018, 4:29 PM · If I wanted a baroque violin I would call up David Burgess and have him make me a regular violin. Then when I got it home I would just saw a couple of inches off the end of the bridge. Voila! And of course I would use a Sawzall.
November 27, 2018, 4:52 PM · From this very forum:

"Nate Robinson
May 11, 2007 at 07:08 AM ยท Lots of orchestras tune to 442. According to a well known orchestral violinist I know, Boston Symphony Orchestra tunes to 444, NY Phil tunes to 443, and Berlin Phil tunes to 445. I personally really don't like 440 - I tune usually to 443 or 444 when I practice."

At the end it doesn't matter for us string players. Pitch levels at the extreme ends of A=392 to A=466 have larger implications for singers's ranges...

"And that a baroque instrument isn't a basic requirement for playing with us. It's about fun and music, rather than rules and science."


November 27, 2018, 9:19 PM · Regarding the question of "what IS a baroque violin?" I enjoyed this website with a short series of concise discussions about why there is no single template but rather a variety of designs and styles over perhaps 200 years and many cities with their own traditions in violin-making:


Edited: November 28, 2018, 3:18 AM · Nuuska - isn't the notion of a exclusive clan of HIPsters who insist on "doing everything the correct way" a bit of a straw man? If they exist, I've yet to meet them. Among baroque performers there are some I like, some I don't like, but although I believe all are sincerely trying to reach the essence of the music I don't think any would be so arrogant as to claim they're doing it "the correct way". Personally I quite agree that one can obtain perfectly musical results on modern instruments; I just wonder why the ensemble you play with insists on tuning to a somewhat controversial "baroque" pitch?
November 28, 2018, 5:58 AM · I will just say that I find ridiculous that piano manufacturers drive pitch up and force string players to follow. Recently, I started avoiding chamber music with piano players whose tuners prefer to tune above 440Hz.
Higher pitch, higher tension, more stress on your instrument and your ears.
Relax, tune down all the way to 432... 415Hz. You will be surprised how good it feels.
November 28, 2018, 6:41 AM · Sorry Rocky, but doesn't it rather depend on what music you're playing and what pitch standard the composer was used to? I'm never aware that my ears are stressed, even by quite insistently high-pitched music and as for the instrument, mine stays in tune and doesn't get through strings any faster than it should. Finally, I'm not sure my colleagues would agree to your suggestion and I'd be in Nuuska's dilemma (albeit to a lesser degree) every time I joined them!
November 28, 2018, 11:40 AM · Rocky, yepp, tuning down feels good. I think it also depends on the way one hears and perceives it. And I'm rather that viola-violin guy...
Steve, we tune down mainly because the two of us who play baroque instruments are concerned about the integrity of their instruments - and a little bit because "it feels good". ;-)
November 28, 2018, 11:51 AM · And as for the HIPsters - there are quite a few, especially not-so-top-notch players who are quite arrogant about their superior understanding what was going on 300 yrs ago... At the moment it's a bit trendy. Maybe a regional phenomenon, and for sure not common amongst high level pros.
November 28, 2018, 12:17 PM · When my friend went to the Kronberg Academy, he came back used to the super high A at A=447 because that's the town organ's pitch. It's really all relative, high for my friend from North America and normal for the folks at Kronberg. Just blend our sound to the local pitch and everyone will be happy.

I suspect people who fixate on pitch levels are relying on pitch memory rather than playing in tune to the harmony...which is probably not so desirable...!

November 28, 2018, 12:45 PM · I'll admit that the last time I mingled with serious HIPsters was some time ago and maybe attitudes have hardened since then. My favourite violinist of the time was Simon Standage who switched effortlessly between baroque and modern instruments, even in the same repertoire. Our occasional modern-instrument band that somehow got the job of playing the Matthew Passion in St Paul's Cathedral each Good Friday decided to invest a significant proportion of its budget in a prestigious concertmaster, and St Simon happened to have a vacancy in his diary. "Erbarme dich" was of course a high point, but I was much too intent on not messing up to get the full endorphin rush, and the mezzo soprano had a rather inauthentic wobble.
December 7, 2018, 10:00 PM · I suspect Bach would have found that wobble all too authentic...
December 8, 2018, 3:59 AM · I bought a few A440 tuning forks recently on Amazon. Two (Planet Waves and a dirt-cheap Chinese Kasstino) were perfect. The third, a Sodial, was 450Hz according to my Snark!
Edited: December 8, 2018, 12:15 PM · "Recently, I started avoiding chamber music with piano players whose tuners prefer to tune above 440Hz."

I'd surprised if there are many tuners who "prefer" to tune above 440. For one thing, most tuners are using electronic tuning devices that have defaults of 440. Few tuners have perfect pitch and would have no reason to have a preference or change that. Tuning forks, if used, are generally 440 if calibrated correctly for temperature.

If a tuner does habitually tune higher than 440, I'd thing there are two possible reasons:
-he or she is using a fork and simply isn't that accurate with it, or the fork isn't at the correct temperature (or calibrated for the room temperature of the piano).
-Many tuners, instead of tuning exactly to 440, will let the pitch "float" with the seasons. It will rise in humid weather and fall in dry weather. It saves them some time and effort. Thus the piano is actually averaging 440 over the course of a year. Or they will try to compensate for a change in season by tuning it a little high before hot, dry weather. When you put stage lights on and pack bodies into a hall and stage, the temperature rises...and piano pitch can fall. It's always a moving target for the tuner.

Also, if the piano is in the home, keep in mind that unless it was tuned yesterday it has probably already drifted. All the owner has to do is boil a big pot of water in the kitchen for pasta and the piano, if close by, will respond by going up in pitch.

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