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How we arrived at A=440 from a contemporary source

Started by David Pinnegar, January 30, 2012, 01:50:55 AM

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David Pinnegar


I was fortunate enough to find the following . . . and it contains some surprises!

Best wishes

David P

Proceedings of the Conference of Piano Technicians
April 3 1918

D.A. McDonald: "It seems to me that in this question of propaganda there is one thing which should be driven deeper than any other into the purchaser of pianos. If every purchaser of a piano could understand that the child who learns to play the piano or to sing to the accompaniment of a piano which is out of tune and is allowed to continue to sing or play on that piano up to the age of, say, eighteen or twenty years, if that person lives a hundred years he will never develop a fine sense of intonation, because that wrong tone idea will stay just as long as his body remains. If the piano owner who sends for a tuner would say to him, 'Tune that piano to 435 A exactly, no matter how many strings you break—I will pay for the strings and your time,' the sense of intonation of the coming generation would be greatly improved. Personally, I can see no reason why a person should allow one string of his piano to be out of tune any more than the. violinist should play on his violin with one string out of tune."

E. E. Beach: "A number of years ago a retail store made a practice of sending out a tuner when a piano was sold and every three months thereafter for one year. They had the customers so thoroughly imbued with the idea that the piano needed tuning that they usually attended it themselves afterwards.
"A lady had her little daughter go across the room, turn her back and then the mother would strike a note on the piano and ask the note she had struck and the little girl would tell her. After the piano was tuned the daughter was unable to tell. She had gone completely out of tune with the piano."

F.E. Morton: "Memory is responsiveness above normal—that is just as true of every bit of matter on this earth as it is of the organs of hearing. Take an instrument that is at all responsive, strike its key note on another instrument and it will respond. The next time it will respond with a little greater intensity and the next time a little greater, and so on—that is memory. Responsiveness comes from the practice of responding and 'tone memory' offers material for one of those stories I suggested. You get more responsiveness from a piano after it has been played upon for a length of time. The chipping and four tunings help it, but if the piano is kept in tune and played upon, the tone improves. The sounding board will respond to the same pitch from each note a little better as time goes on. The man who has a violin which he values highly should always keep it tuned and at the same pitch. Violins increase in value because of the treatment they receive as well as the original work put on them.
"The other night Mr. Milner suggested the possibility of demanding of the manufacturers of pianos and other fixed pitch instruments that the pitch be raised to 440 A. A piano at its best at a given pitch is not at its best at another pitch. That does not mean that all scales will have to be changed."

P.A. McDonald: "In regard to the change of the official pitch of the American Federation of Musicians, which was made at the annual convention last May, I will say that it was entirely unnecessary. If they wished to get the wind instruments and pianos together all they had to do was to provide that, when the piano is used in orchestra, it shall be tuned at A-437 or A-438. Then when the temperature rises the piano will sink a little and the wind instruments will rise a little, establishing between them a very playable pitch.
"Every one knows that a wind instrument rises in pitch with a rise in temperature and almost every one has a fairly good idea as to the cause thereof, but what they do not know is just how much the different instruments are affected. That is one reason why our Army and Navy departments have placed in their latest band instrument specifications a most ridiculous provision, as well as one with which no manufacturer can comply—namely, that all instruments made for army and navy bands must give A-435 at 59° F. and A-440 at 71° or 72°. If one instrument could be made to do this—and I do not consider this possible—the others could not comply with this requirement.
   "Mr. D. J. Blaikley, the eminent expert and acoustician, in his lectures on acoustics in relation to wind instruments, delivered before the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, London, gives the following table of variation in pitch caused by the rise in temperature of ten degrees, from 60° F. to 70° F.:
   Flute and Oboe      Rise    1 .50
   Clarinet         "   2 .06
   Cornet and Trumpet         2.45
   French Horn and Trombone   "   2.88
   Euphonium or Baritone   "   3.16
   Bombardon or Bass         3 .50
   Mean of full wind band      2.60

"If therefore, a band playing at A-435 at 60° F. encounters a rise in temperature to 70' F. lie instruments will then be found about as follows:
   Flute and Oboe      436.50
   Clarinet         437.06
   Cornet and Trumpet      437.45
   French Horn and Trombone   437.88
   Euphonium         438.16
   Bass            438.50

'From the above it will appear that the United States bands will have to get along with the variation established by nature. If the specifications had demanded that instruments should play at A-435 when the temperature is 60° F., about all that is possible in that line would have been accomplished.
"Mr. Blaikley further states that while increase of temperature may cause a rise of as much as a quarter of a tone, the difference is modified by the breath, and that the variation between summer and Winter pitch of instruments, when warmed by playing, is always less than would be raised by extremes of the outer air. In other words, that the heat imparted by the breath modifies both the rise and fall of the pitch, making the variation less than would be shown by the laboratory test.
"In my position with Lyon & Healy I have had occasion within the past ten years to test thousands of instruments, both of American and foreign make, using for purpose of comparison a well tuned reed organ, and I cannot recall a single instance of an instrument made to play at A-435 which, in the hottest summer weather, could be played with a piano correctly tuned to A-440. A person with a very strong embouchure could probably force a single note that high, but it would be alusolutely impossible to play the different registers of an instrument under such a strain. The saxophone, for instance, can be played very much off pitch in the second octave, but if one attempts to play the lower register sharp the instrument will 'octave' — that is will give the note fingered an octave higher than was intended. That is the reason why a 'jazzer' does not use the lower notes of his instrument to any great extent.
"There are several other reasons why the full effect of temperature is not felt in wind instruments. For instance, when the metal in an instrument is heated it expands and the instrument becomes a little longer and a trifle larger in calibre. This is so small as to be almost negligible, but it has some effect. Also, every player blows more or less moisture into his instrument. That moisture evaporates and in doing so cools the air within the tube, and thereby lowers the pitch.
Still another cause is that in winter time only a part of the bore of any wind instrument becomes heated. In the saxophone, probably not more than one-third, or at most, one-half of the length is affected. In the case of the basses a change of twenty degrees would not, probably, mean a change of more than ten in the air within the instrument. The few inches affected at the mouthpiece would be counteracted by the coldness of the bell and other large tubing, which the breath would fail to heat.
"In the public dance halls, is probably where the greatest trouble from changes of temperature is experienced. When the orchestra begins playing the hall is often as low as 40°. Little by little the temperature goes up to 70 or 80. Then the dancers find it too warm and the windows are opened, even if the outside air is below zero. Immediately the strings go up, including the piano. The harp is affected probably more than any other instrument. , I have played on engagements where the harpist's pay for the evening was less than his expense for broken strings caused by the opening of windows. Of course, the wind instruments drop in pitch. Often they cannot be kept up to A-435. What will they do in such cases when the piano is at A-440?
"As an instance of what change of pitch is already doing, I will state that one factory which manufacturers flutes and piccolos claims to make its instruments regularly to A-440, but because they have a large government contract calling .for A-435 they are using the latter pitch. Another factory making flutes, piccolos and clarinets are supplying these instruments—despite the specification—at A-440. It is not hard to imagine the result when instruments from these two factories are used in the same band.
"I believe that the verdict of the scientific men of the world is in favor of A-435, and I should like to see everybody agree to that pitch. I should also like to see the American Federation of Musicians, as representing the professional musicians of the United States and Canada, demand that the manufacturers of wind instruments get together amid standardize their pitch, instead of each one following the dictates of his own sweet will, as they have been doing for the past few years.
"From experience I am inclined to think that the manufacturers of wind instrumemits throughout the country know less about their pitch than others do. For example, as soon as I heard about the change I called up the head of one factory and asked him what pitch he was making his saxophones. Promptly he replied 'A-440.' A short time afterward a saxophone of his make was brought in by a lady vaudeville artist to see if we could not raise its pitch, as she could not get it up to the pianos in the theaters in which she was playing. On trying the instrument I found that I could not get it up to A-435, and on measuring it I found that it was about an inch and a half longer than other instruments in the same key of three other makes. I have since had another case of the same kind and of the same make. So much for that manufacturer's knowledge of his product. In another case the general manager of one of our largest factories read my letter to the International Musician protesting against the change and immediately wrote me a very kind and sympathetic letter saying that he was sorry that I had not first posted myself on what band instrument factories were doing, as they had been making their instruments at A-440 for a long time. He seemed quite sorry that I had made such a fool of myself, hut although I have been carefully trying every instrument of his make that I have seen since, no tone of them was anywhere msear A-440. He also could look into what his factory is doing, to advantage. On my desk at Lyon & Healy's lies a C soprano saxophone sent in as a sample by still another factory. So that there should be no doubt as to its pitch they put a red mark on its mouthpiece cork at a point where they said the mouthpiece should be placed to make it A-440. I tested it and found that with this adjustment it was just a comfortable A-435.
"One argument which was probably used at the convention in favor of the change is that because the symphony orchestras play at A-439 or A-440 all others should do the same. They evid~ntly did not stop to think that symphony orchestra players have their instruments built in that pitch, but that the thousands of other players throughout the country, as well as the music stores, have only instruments made at or nearly at A-435. They, also, did not take into consideration the fact that instruments built in A-440 will vary from change of temperature just as much as the others, and that when all the factories are making reed instruments at A-440 it will again be necessary to raise the pitch of the pianos and organs to A-443 or A-445."

James F. Bowers: "Suppose at the coming meeting of the Federation, Mr. McDonald, you should represent the tuners in the matter of pitch. What would you recommend, what method would you advise as to insisting upon A-435?"

D. A. McDonald: "The convention of the American Federation meets again in May, here in Chicago, and I feel sure that if the Piano Manufacturers Association and the Tuners' Association would communicate with President Jos. N. Weber and request a hearing on this subject he would gladly comply, and would probably appoint a committee for the purpose of re-hearing. Then if that committee could be made to include representatives of all parties concerned and also some well versed scientific men who are competent to present the acoustical side of the matter, I am confident that the old and well established International Pitch, A-435, would be restored, with the added proviso, as I have before suggested, that when pianos are tuned for orchestral use they shall be tuned to A-437 or A-438."

Frank Milner: "I became interested through the pipe organ. For a number of years 435-A was considered the correct pitch. This question of pitch has been the subject of legislative enactment and also royal edict. If we have to comply with the symphony orchestra and with the theatre orchestra, you will have to have two instruments if an exact  pitch is desired. It was on that account that the Federation changed the pitch from 435 to 440. We cannot change the pitch of an organ after installing as you could a piano. Therefore, because the orchestra could not be used with the organ, we had to go to 440. Many of the large orchestras—that in London and our own here prefer 440. It means a great deal more to us than it does to the piano. It costs us a lot  of money to make the change."

D. A. McDonald: "I may venture one little piece of information. That change of pitch did not originate with the organ. It came about through the manufacturer of orchestra bells discovering that the smaller their bells, were and the higher the pitch the less the overtones would hold  over. Consequently the makers of these bells have been tuning them at 439 and 440. I asked one  maufacturer of orchestra bells the other day at what pitch he is tuning his bells. He said: 439-A. It makes them sound a little more brilliant to be a little higher than the orchestra.' Like the two country violinists who had occasion to play at a kitchen dance and when they got there one said to the other: 'Let us tune a little bit apart, Bill, and then they will know there are two of us playing.' As a result of this business of tuning the bells higher than the orchestra, the orchestra bells now are being thrown out of the orchestra. It is now up to the manufacturers of orchestra  bells to force a 440 pitch or they will be up against the proposition of retuning thous.uuuds of bells all over the country and most of the owners will insist on their being tuned without charge.''

Frank Milner of the W. W. Kimball Company then demonstrated the Deaganometer and described its uses.



Interesting.  My first treble recorder was tuned to something other than A=44 - and I have a couple of old tuning forks that pre-date A=440Hz in the UK.  Many UK organs are significantly sharp to A=440 - often half a semitone or more at 60 deg F, making use with wind instruments problematic.  The pitch of reed organs is also often sharper than A=440 - my "new" (to me) folding reed organ is almost a semi-tone sharp to A=440Hz.

And there are moves by some orchestras to take "standard" pitch above A=440Hz.  So much for standards!

every Blessing


David Pinnegar


Yes - I should have mentioned - this conference was in Chicago in 1918. The proceedings from 1916 to 1919 in New York form a volume entitled Piano Tone Building published by the Acoustic Department of the American Steel & Wire Co. Elsewhere the book is of particular particular personal interest in its discussion of harmonics and inharmonic harmonics in relation to piano tone which I am examining in my work with unequal temperament for the instrument.

So it's a predominantly US based publication but the whilst the raising of piano pitch generally is common ground to Europe, although a friend tells me that 440 was the pitch in Vienna in the 1850s, certainly my "American organ" harmonium is 1/4 tone sharp and the Hunter pipe organ of 1893 here is likewise at summer temperatures, causing terrible problems for a violinist who bravely and excellently did a recital for organ and violin.

Meanwhile a 1920s Harrison and Harrison of which I'm aware is around 432 or so.

Best wishes

David P

David Pinnegar


Whilst reading the Musica Antiqua magazine on the plane the other day, I noted an interesting article upon the Tuning Fork and recommend readers to subscribe

On a post about lottery funding of an organ a forum member remarked upon the sharp pitch having been retained.

It's interesting to speculate that examples of widespread use of sharp pitch will have survived more than low pitch on account of pipes being easier to cut down than to add to . . . :-) although perhaps that is a reason why many instruments were slidered . . .

The article affirms that 440 was used at the Paris Conservatoire in 1812, the Philharmonic Society in the 1820s, Dresden Opera in the 1860s whilst Covent Garden Opera went to 450 in 1879. The article claims that this was surpassed by Broadwood and Steinway in the late 1870s and 1880s, Steinway having a fork of 454.7 in 1880. [I object to four figure accuracy in this context - to that extent it would have been temperature dependant (can anyone find details of tuning fork variation with temperature?) and we should refer to it as 458.

Certainly not only harmoniums (presumably 1870s/80s) and an 1893 organ of which I am aware are sharp but I have a set of pitch pipes which are sharp also.

Interestingly whilst tuning a piano yesterday, I found it at a shade above 420 and so took it to 425. Relevantly perhaps, the semitone higher was 450.

Best wishes

David P


Quote from: David Pinnegar on February 04, 2012, 11:49:46 AM

........... [I object to four figure accuracy in this context - to that extent it would have been temperature dependant (can anyone find details of tuning fork variation with temperature?) and we should refer to it as 458.


Best wishes

David P

A quick search brought up an article here David:

Quote: "A decrease in frequency of one vibration in 21,000 for each °F change is typical for a steel tuning fork."

And another article here:

Quote: "A good rule of thumb is the pitch of a steel fork drops one cent for every eight degrees rise in temperature Fahrenheit. (That's about five degrees Celsius.)  So if you want one half cent accuracy you would need four degree F temperature accuracy.  Remember that when you bring your tool box in from the cold car."

Perhaps of equal interest would be the sensitivity of human perception, regarding the 'accuracy' or otherwise of pitch. Presumably it's likely to vary greatly from one individual to another.

Why can some individuals apparently detect very small discrepancies in pitch and tuning, while for others, anything within half a semitone passes more or less unnoticed? I suppose those of us in the latter category could be further subdivided into some who may be vaguely aware that all is not well, but are unable to define the reason for it, and others who are blissfully unaware that there is anything wrong at all.

Supposing the human ear also varies with temperature, mood, and maybe a host of other things? What if that perceived change is not in the tuning fork after all? Or is that another can of worms?

(Conductor to Sopranos, "We seem to be a little flat there."
Sopranos to Conductor, "Perhaps you are standing in a draught sir."
  ;) )

Edit: Apologies. Since posting I have realised that I inserted the URLs as ftp links instead of hyperlinks, consequently they didn't work. I have now corrected them.