John Munsterman Piano Tuning
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CONCERT PITCH

WHAT IS PITCH?

What do we mean by pitch?

Sound is the noise of air vibrating and the pitch of that noise, or note, is defined by the frequency at which it vibrates. For example, the note A usually used for tuning instruments is the sound of air vibrating at around 440 cycles per second (or Hertz) - the higher the pitch, the higher the figure. Some instruments, such as cymbals or drums, are described as unpitched or of indefinite pitch, because they produce no single discernible note or pitch.

What is "intonation"?

The accuracy (or otherwise) of the pitch of a note - sung or played - in relation to those around it.

How does one know if something is "in tune"?

When it sounds right. Curiously, the ear is less aware of sharpness (above the true note) than flatness (below it), so that many performers sing or play sharp without noticing it. Strings often tune a little sharp, to the dismay of wind and brass players. When two supposedly identical notes are not in tune they set up painful, audible "beats", or pulsating sounds.

What is equal temperament?

This means that any given interval - whether semitone, third or fifth remains constant, whatever note it begins on. Tuning based on the harmonic series is naturally unequal - for example, a succession of three pure major thirds does not add up to an exact octave (it is about a fifth of a tone out). So if an instrument is tuned to sound in tune in one key, it will appear more and more out of tune the further the music modulates from that key. The standardization of equal temperament in the Baroque era, making all semitones the same distance apart, enabled Bach to write his preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys for his Well-Tempered Clavier. Singers and string players, though, still have a natural tendency towards unequal temperament - the differences are usually too slight to be noticeable, but it can make sonatas for strings and piano difficult to get dead in tune.

So out-of-tuneness is subjective?

You can measure it with electronic devices, but human perception is not absolute: ears readily compensate. Some people's perception is more acute than other's, but that does not make them better musicians. Some might even hear a slightly different pitch with each ear. Age can play havoc with perceived pitch: no one over 55 should criticize any but the most serious out-of-tuneness. An amateur orchestra which plays with erratic intonation can still be enjoyed, because all but the most sensitive ears soon adjust to the prevailing intonation.

What are absolute pitch and perfect pitch?

A person with absolute pitch (which is more often inborn than acquired) can sing or identify any note by name out of the blue, without reference to any surrounding notes. Perfect pitch is another name for the same, but nobody's perfect.

What about relative pitch?

This means the ability to be able to sing or identify, say, an F sharp, when given, say, a B flat, in any octave.

Why do orchestras tune to A?

It is a note common to the open (unstopped) strings of all string instruments. The oboe traditionally defines the pitch for everyone else to tune to, because it is least affected by temperature change and has a penetrating sound. When a fixed-pitch instrument takes part in the performance, say, a piano or organ, then the orchestra takes its A from that (or the oboist first matches his to it). In military bands the tuning note is the leading clarinettist's B flat, a note more suitable for tuning brass instruments.

Do all orchestras play to the same pitch?

Standard (defined by an international convention in 1955) is A=440 Hz. Before that, pitch was all over the place, according to the whim of instrument makers. At the beginning of the 19th century it was usually considerably lowers, certainly in England (probably about A=420 in the London orchestras of Beethoven's time) but rose gradually to as high as A=445, though the French established their diapason normal (A=435) as early as 1859. American and Japanese orchestras tend to play sharper than British or continental ones.

How High Can It Go?

Some years ago, when the Vienna Philharmonic pitch went up and up, some wind-players complained that they could no longer adjust by pulling out the sections of their instruments any further and were being forced to buy new ones. International singers then protested that a season at the Vienna State Opera strained their voices so much it shortened their career: a strike was narrowly averted.

So What Do "Period" Orchestras Do?

Because pitch in the 17th and 18th centuries was lower, period instrument groups often play below A=440 (as much as a minor third lower), which produces a much mellower sound.

What Affects Intonation During A Concert?

Rising temperature, which makes metal, wood and gut behave in different ways. Most string players now play on metal strings, which, like the materials from which most wind and brass instruments are made, expand - get sharper!

If The Instruments Get Bigger, Doesn't The Sound Get Deeper?

The expansion is microscopic, more than cancelled out by the fact that a warm column of air vibrates faster than a cold one, thereby sharpening the pitch. Hence all the silent breathing-down-the-tubes at the start of a performance is to warm instruments to optimum temperature, particularly in cold weather.