Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A 440. Not So Standard.

Written by Stefan Aune

Violins, Violas, and Cellos all have an A string, and every violinist, violist and cellist invests a great deal of  time and energy into keep that A string in tune and then tuning their other strings in relation to the A. Most orchestras and ensembles tune from the A pitch, which is usually used as the standard for tuning. Whether it is a line of beginners waiting for their orchestra teacher to tune their instruments, or a seasoned professional attempting to wrestle a stubborn string into tune before a concert, tuning is an (all too often aggravating) shared experience for musicians. Despite the importance placed on playing "in tune," you might be surprised to learn that "in tune" has meant a variety of things over the years, and only recently has there been anywhere near a consensus on what exactly an in tune "A" should sound like.

Sound is a vibration that travels in waves, and humans perceive these sound waves as a pitch that is measured in a unit called Hertz (Hz).  Hertz are used to measure the rate of vibration of a sound, and each of our musical notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G) corresponds to a certain Hz measurement. However, there hasn't always been a general consensus on what each musical note should measure in Hz. When Bach played an "A" on his organ, that note's Hz measurement was different from the "A" that we tune the violins to in our shop. The development of pitch standardization has been the result of technological and scientific advancements as well as "pitch inflation," the gradual rise in pitch levels that results from instrumentalists attempting to achieve brighter and brighter tones.



Before the 19th century there was no standardization for pitch, and pitch levels could vary within the same city. Examining old organ pipes and pitch pipes can give an idea of just how large the range of pitches could be. For example, an English pitch pipe from 1720 plays the A above middle C at 380 Hz, while the organs that J.S. Bach played on in Germany had the A above middle C at 480 Hz, a significant difference. The A on the 1720 pitch pipe would have been equivalent to an F on Bach's organ. Technological advancements, such as the invention of the tuning fork, helped regulate pitch, but tuning forks were far from exact. George Frideric Handel, the famous German composer, had two tuning forks, one that played the A at 422.5 Hz, the other that played the A at 409 Hz. It wasn't until the late 19th century that scientifically accurate measurements of sound waves could be accomplished thanks to advancements in the study of physics.

The first attempts at universal standardization of pitch were largely the result of "pitch inflation," or the continual raising of pitch levels caused by instrumentalists competing to produce brighter and brighter tones. As pitch levels rose, vocalists complained of strain on their vocals chords, resulting in early calls for some level of pitch standardization. The emergence of the orchestra as an independent performance unit, rather than a backdrop for choral performance, also contributed to pitch inflation. Tuning forks from the early 19th century chart the rise of pitch inflation. An 1815 tuning fork from the Dresden opera house plays an A at 423.2 Hz, while one dated 11 years later from the same venue plays A at 435 Hz.  In 1859 the French government passed a law that set the A above middle C at 435 Hz. The British also attempted to standardize the A at 452 Hz. The "concert pitch" of 440 Hz. that we know today wasn't established until 1939. A = 440Hz continues to be regarded as the international standard for pitch, although a few orchestras in the United States, as well as many in Europe, tune to A = 442 Hz.

Even today, in the world of digital tuners, quantum physics, and the internet, standard pitch is still creeping upwards. Pitch inflation maybe have slowed down, but it seems that the desire to creep above A=440 Hz will continue to nudge the boundaries of standard pitch. Of course, next time your orchestra director tells you that you are playing out of tune, you could argue that tuning is relative, the only reason A = 440 Hz is because we all agree to a set standard pitch at that level, and that you are simply trying to establish a new standard pitch. I can't promise they will agree with you, but it might be worth a shot.

As the A (and all notes) became higher it produced different demands on the musician and stringed instruments. Stay tuned for blogs on how the A creep necessitated a longer bass bar in violins and subsequent developments in neck length, string length and neck angle.

See a great chart of the Hz of A on this link.

Click here to hear an A440 tuning fork, plus an E and C.

The standardization of A did not happen in a vacuum. Systems of tuning and Scale also evolved over the last few hundred of years. Our idea of what is in tune and out of tune has changed as well. But that's another blog.....


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