January 7, 2010

The Story of "A:" More about Baroque pitch

Since the title of our blog is A-415, we felt that one of our first blog posts of the new year should again address the issue of pitch, especially since this will be a major part of Nic's upcoming posts about our February concerts. David Wilson joins us once more to explain (he also warns that your geek alarms may sound...):

Baroque oboe legend
Bruce Haynes has researched the issue of historical pitches in detail. I suggest reading his book The Story of “A if this post interests you. Bruce points out that we talk about pitch levels by means of two coordinates, a pitch name and a frequency in hertz, e.g. “A-415.” For about the last century, the standard pitch level has been A-440, meaning that, wherever you go in the world, Western classical music is likely to be played at a pitch level in which the note A in the middle of the treble staff is tuned to 440 hz. (Editors note: a hertz is a unit of frequency – one cycle per second – that measures, in this case, the traveling wave or oscillation of pressure caused by vibrations that we discern as sound). Having a pitch standard is a convenience for musicians, nothing more.

Prior to the late 19th century, however, there were no universally recognized pitch standards. One could travel from one part of Europe or, in some cases, from one city to another and find music being made at different pitches. For a string player, this in no problem – the string can be tuned to any pitch (within reason) – but for a fixed-pitch instrument, like a flute or an oboe, this can be a huge problem. It might mean that if you were an oboist, you could play in tune with a violin band but not with the church organ, or you could form your own band with your friend with a recorder made in your village but not with your friend with a recorder from the next town over.

In the Baroque Era, pitch levels as high as A-465 (17th century Venice) and as low as A-392 (18th century France) are known to have existed. A few generalizations can be made:
  • pitch was high in North Germany and lower in South Germany
  • pitch was low in Rome but high in Venice
  • pitch in France depended on whether you were playing chamber music, opera or something else.
Pitch levels in the Renaissance and Middle Ages were similarly varied according to location and historical period. By the Classical period there was more interest in standardized pitch levels, again as a matter of convenience for traveling musicians.

One of the pitches used during the baroque period was A-415. Since 415 hz. is about a half-step below the modern standard of A-440, the pitch of A-415 was seized on as a convenient modern “baroque pitch” standard, because in the early days of the historical performance movement a harpsichord would sometimes play with groups at A-440 and sometimes at a lower pitch, and if the difference in pitch is a half-step, the keyboard could be made so that it slides over one string so that the A key played a string tuned to 440 hz. in one position and a string tuned to 415 hz. in the other position.

“So when you play baroque music, you tune to a G-sharp,” some people say at this point. Not so! We tune to an A, but we define the A differently depending on what kind of music we’re going to play. A baroque violinist may carry 4 different tuning forks (or one handy iPhone app), and a baroque flutist probably owns two or three different flutes at different pitches.


  1. Here is a recording of an apparently famous organist playing the Prelude and Fugue in C major by Bach BWV 545.


    However, I am hearing it in Db major ie the tuning of this organ is the reverse to what you suggest. (if this was as a result of Baroque tuning, shouldn't I be hearing it in B major- a semitone lower, not a semitone higher?)

  2. First of all, let me congratulate your discerning ear when it comes to pitch. The point I tried to make in my article was that before the 20th century, the pitch in herz to which instruments were tuned was not standardized; at any given time, the pitch of A could be as low as 390 hz. (about a whole step below our modern standard of 440 hz.) or as high as 466 hz. (about a half step above 440 hz.). Regardless of the frequency in herz of the note A in the middle of the treble staff (the note most often used to identify a pitch level), the note remains an A. If you walk over to a keyboard instrument tuned to the pitch A-392 and play the note A, a different pitch will result than if you then walk over to a keyboard instrument tuned to the pitch A-440 and play the note A. However, each of those pitches are the note A in the context of the respective instruments--the A is defined differently in different contexts. Neither of them is a G, or a G-sharp, or anything other than an A

    I can assure you that Ton Koopman was playing BWV 545 in C major and not D-flat major; so if your ear is telling you that Mr. Koopman's performance is in D-flat, I would say that the organ is tuned a half-step higher than the pitch your ear thinks is a C. Although the YouTube clip doesn't identify the instrument being used, it's likely that it's north German (since those are the instruments Bach played on), and it was often the case that organs in northern Germany were tuned to a higher pitch than elsewhere in Europe. There's a good chapter on pitch levels in The Cambridge Companion to the Organ.

    An interesting intersection of practice and perception occurs when someone with so-called "perfect pitch" finds him- or herself playing at various pitch levels. Although I personally am not afflicted with perfect pitch, colleagues who are, whose ears were set to a pitch of A-440 by exposure and experience, tell me that at first other pitch levels are very disorienting, but that in time their ears (that is, their brains) adjust. "I now have perfect pitch at A-440 and A-415," a violinist said to me in our first year of baroque violin study.

  3. Thank you so much for your answer-it was most instructive!

    I do have perfect pitch. Your story about the violinist was very interesting for me- I never heard of anyone else with the same affliction! I play the organ but learned the trumpet once (pitched in B flat). However, whenever I hear a trumpet playing C, I hear C not B flat. The same pitch (same frequency in Hz) played on a piano or organ I hear as B flat.

    For me the whole character of a piece of music changes when I hear it at a different pitch-so the Ton Koopman recording sounds wrong-much too mellow in (apparently to me) D flat major. As you say though, it is likely that his is the correct sound, and it is just that I got used to playing the piece at the wrong Hz....

    David McCalley, Bristol UK

  4. Intersting post. What's the legitimacy of performing late eighteenth-century French instrumental music at A=415 Hz? Does the PBO play 'classical' works at a higher pitch?
    I read recently that Pascal Taskin's tuning fork c.1780 for the Musique de la Chambre at Versailles, was pitched at A=409 Hz, which could seem surprisingly low for the time. I should perhaps explain that I am organising a concert (and possibly a recording) of French woodwind chamber music from the 1780s, and since a couple of the other musicians do not (yet) possess instruments at A=430 Hz, I'd suggested performing at A=415 Hz.
    I realize that both 415 and 430 are compromises, but it seems that you are almost 'expected' to perform anything composed after 1750 at higher-than-baroque pitch, and I'm sure this was not always the case.
    I'd appreciate any comments on this issue ...
    Florio, Italy

  5. Although we often do our best to research what may have been the most accurate tuning for a piece that we are playing, historically informed performance is no science. Period performance is often as much about the "right" feel of the music as it is about its historical accuracy. Sometimes compromises are made because of the instruments that are available, the musicians who are playing, sometimes artistic decisions are made that have nothing to do with accuracy, and sometimes educated guesses have to be made because of the gaps in primary sources. We often try different bowings, phrasings, tempos, orchestra set ups, and other performance techniques based on historically recorded information during rehearsals – sometimes these experiments make it into the performance, sometimes they do not. Maybe you can try different tunings to see which feels "right" to you and your ensemble?

  6. I find some of the commentary on playing well above 440hz to be suspect. Baroque string instruments, especially violins, are not as able to handle the higher tensions of being tuned almost a half-step sharper than we tune today (A-440). Our modern steel and composite A-strings will often break when one accidentally approaches some of the 465-466 values stated. I am almost positive the lighter gut strings would have broken before then. This doesn't even take into account that too much pressure on top of the instrument will cause it to cave in. This could be for non-bowed string instrumentation, but with bow instruments with the instrument and string technology of that era I am very cautious in trying to visualize a string ensemble tuning to a pitch they would have difficulty doing today with harder strings and a more reinforced instrument.