Shouldn't Standard Pitch be Standard?

Come with me, if you would, on a journey. What you’re about to read is a tale of an oddity in the music world, which I stumbled upon some time back and which led me, not unlike Alice toward Wonderland, down a very deep rabbit hole.

Did you know that musical notes are not the same everywhere? A middle C isn’t always a middle C, and the A above middle C likewise varies. This fact kind of blew my mind, having only learned to play piano a tiny bit when I was younger...and of course C was always C. But when you’re talking about other musical instruments, that isn’t necessarily the case.

In modern orchestras, they usually tune the orchestra with the oboe. But an oboe must be tuned as well, so what happens if an oboe in New York plays a slightly different pitch than one in Vienna? Well, that’s exactly what used to happen, before that pitch, nowadays called “concert pitch,” was standardized.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Prior to the early 18th century, it was very difficult for there to be any sort of standard tuning, other than by ear. It was in 1711 that British musician John Shore invented the tuning fork. Et voila! A standard that could be used anytime, and expected to reproduce the same tone. But there was no incentive for orchestras to use a consistent tone, so there was no coordinated effort to standardize. Pitch varied from country to country, and could even vary between two orchestras in the same city. There’s even evidence left behind in the form of tuning forks…a 1740 example associated with Handel put the A above middle C at 422.5Hz, and another from 1780 put it at 409Hz, noticeably lower.

By the mid-19th century, the lack of standardization meant that “pitch inflation” was becoming an issue for performers. In an attempt to sound “brighter” than the competition, musicians would increase their pitch. However, this pitch inflation caused serious problems among singers in particular, and in 1859, the French government passed a law declaring the A above middle C to be 435Hz, which would later be known as “French pitch” or “Continental pitch”.

Not content to let the French dictate what they did, others tried to standardize as well. French physicist Joseph Saveur tried to promote the “Scientific pitch,” which placed middle C at 256Hz, because it was a nice square number. That put the A above middle C at 430.54Hz. It never caught on.

The British, always up for a bit of drama, really went for it with their attempts. They started with the “Old Philharmonic pitch,” which put the A above middle C at 452Hz. However, it was unpopular with singers at that high frequency, and some orchestras tuned lower because of it. In 1895, with the start of the Promenade Concerts, which British listeners will recognize as “The Proms,” the primary financial backer, Dr. George Cathcart, insisted that the orchestra be tuned to Continental pitch, which required new instruments and a complete retuning of the organ in the Queen’s Hall. A consultant for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra noted that the Continental pitch had been specified at 59 degrees Fahrenheit, and that with the normal room temperature in the Queen’s Hall, the same instrument tuned to Continental pitch would actually play the A above C at 439Hz. All the instruments, including the organ, were tuned accordingly, and the new 439Hz was thereafter known as the “New Philharmonic pitch” or colloquially as “low pitch”.

After the start of The Proms, other large orchestras across Britain adopted the low pitch standard, but many local ones kept using the older, higher, 452Hz. Some even persisted well into the 20th century.

In 1939, after considerable pressure from the international broadcasting industry, a conference was held in London, which standardized the A above middle C to be 440Hz. This was to be as close as possible to 439Hz, which was the British standard at the time, but 440Hz was easier for broadcasters to reproduce electronically…because math. Which I will spare you this week.

Despite the declared international standard, it would still be another 15 years before an official standards body would accept the 440Hz A. The International Organization for Standardization (what we now know as the ISO) wasn’t founded until February 1947. Then in 1955 they adopted 440Hz as the “standard” A above middle C. The standard was reaffirmed in 1975, when it was officially decreed to be ISO 16.

In modern days, although the international standard is 440Hz, some orchestras still tweak it slightly, but generally they stay in a range of about 5Hz. And according to people who actually know stuff about stuff like this, pitch inflation is still an issue, although it’s rising much more slowly than it ever has in the past.

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