Why do orchestras tune to Violin's "A"?

April 5, 2019, 12:46 AM · Earlier, the bright, rather penetrating sound of the oboe was easy to hear, and its pitch was more stable than gut strings, so it was natural to rely on it for tuning.

But why is it that the Violin now takes up that role?

And why is it an A note only?

Replies (13)

April 5, 2019, 1:25 AM · The violin doesn't take up that role in any orchestra I'm aware of, except for string orchestras.

In both of the orchestras I play in, the oboe tunes the orchestra as long as there is an oboe on stage. We may tune to a clarinet A (second choice) if playing a piece with no oboes, or a violin A (third choice) if there are neither oboes nor clarinets.

April 5, 2019, 6:21 AM · If there are only strings, the orchestra tunes to "A". The reason we tune only to "A" is because we can tune our other strings more reliably against our own "A", although in some low-level orchestras or youth orchestras it's not uncommon to check the consistency of the other strings.

I once played in a orchestra where the strings would tune to the oboe "A" and then the oboe would give a separate "Bb" for the winds.

April 5, 2019, 6:24 PM · A separate "Bb" for the woodwind and brass is not uncommon in my area.

In my chamber orchestra (all strings) concert this evening the deputy leader, a retired Covent Garden Opera pro, gave a quiet "A" separately to each of the string sections in turn. This was to ensure that all 28 players were each able to clearly hear that quiet A for themselves.

April 5, 2019, 11:37 PM · Suppose for philharmonic orchestras, who then takes up this major role of tuning? Is it the oboe then?

Isn't it the concertmaster (who is the leader of the violin section) then?

April 6, 2019, 12:57 AM · It's still the oboe. All the concertmaster does is signal the oboist to begin.
Edited: April 6, 2019, 4:12 AM · The oboe has very little intonation leeway through "embouchure", so we rely on its A.

The strings then tend to tune a little sharp a) because it makes us feel better, and b) because we know the oboe will get sharper as its air-column warms up.

Why A? because every single string instrument has an A-string somewhere..

Edited: April 7, 2019, 9:02 AM · Historically concertmasters have been sort of leaders* (lower case) of orchestras, get paid a good bit (2nd only to conductors except in the rarest cases), walk in next to last, and if they are already standing - why shouldn't they stand to signal that it is time for this conventional final tuning (that should not be necessary).

These days chances are the oboist has an electronic tuner on the stand to be sure the A is the right one (440 ?? - might depend on your orchestra's longitude - maybe latitude too). A couple of years ago, sitting in the viola section during a rehearsal I turned to the oboist next to me after he blew the first tuning pitch and I said "Is that 441?". He checked his tuner and said, "Boy! Your ears are good, I must have hit the wrong button. How could you tell." Indeed it was set for A-441. I had just tuned my viola to 440 before I sat down -- my ears are not that good!

That is one potential disadvantage of these new-fangled tuners compared to the good old tuning forks. Probably the only one - except that the battery can die!

* The concertmaster is the real Leader of the chamber orchestra I currently play in (no conductor) and the winds need to understand what all her motions mean. You know how it is, when the winds are blowing they can't hear anything else.

April 7, 2019, 4:03 PM · Here in the UK we tend to use "Leader" instead of "Concert Master". I'm trying to re-educate myself ;)
April 7, 2019, 4:24 PM · I've seen "leader" used on occasion in the US, but only in orchestras that play without a conductor. Perhaps Americans take a more conductor-centric view of the orchestra?
April 9, 2019, 4:08 PM · No discussion of tuning to the oboe would be complete without Sir Thomas Beecham's famous quip when the oboe's A was wandering all over the place: "Ladies and gentlemen, take your pick."
April 10, 2019, 2:26 AM · @Andrew - only in the US do you hear the conductor called "Maestro"!
April 10, 2019, 2:45 AM · Hmm, that's true. I get the sense American orchestras are often more formal than their European counterparts. You can see it in concert attire too. My impression is that American orchestras' dress codes seem to be universally either white tie or black tie, while business attire is not uncommon in Europe.
April 10, 2019, 5:10 PM · Andrew Victor's point is a good one historically. Back in the Baroque era, there was no conductor, and the concertmaster lead the orchestra from his chair. Joshua Bell leads Academy of St. Martin in the Fields that way, i.e., as concertmaster rather than conductor. I think Orchestra of St. Lukes operates that way also.


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