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The History of Musical Pitch in Tuning the Pianoforte
by Edward E. Swenson
On July 27, 1987, at its meeting in Toronto, the International Society of Piano Builders and Technicians unanimously renewed their support for A=440 as the international pitch standard for piano manufacturers and for modern piano and orchestral tuning. The advantages for the acceptance of A=440 by all makers of modern musical instruments for use in concert halls and recording studios seems obvious. Unfortunately, the question of musical pitch is even more complicated today than it was fifty years ago when an International Conference in London also recommended the international use of A=440. The history of musical pitch as it relates to piano tuning has important consequences. Stringed-keyboard music written in the Baroque and Classic periods (including the music of J.S. Bach, Handel, Joseph Haydn, W.A. Mozart, C.P.E. Bach and Beethoven) was originally intended to be played at a low pitch which ranged from A=420 to A=430, nearly a semitone lower than A=440. Obviously, the musical result of playing harpsichord and early piano music at A=440 is considerably different from the less brilliant low pitch the composers originally intended. In the Romantic Period pitch skyrocketed upward well past A=440 and it fluctuated wildly according to location and performing arena. For example, in 1879 Steinway in New York used a tuning fork which produced A=457.2. While Chickering in Boston preferred A=435, the international pitch standard established by a French Commission in 1859. Still it is likely that most of the late 19th-century pianos (grands, squares and uprights) built in the United States after the Civil War (1865) were tuned at a pitch higher than A=440.
There is a rapidly growing trend to play Baroque- and Classic-period music on period instruments. Major cities such as London, New York, Amsterdam, Vienna and Toronto now have orchestras which are solely devoted to performing early music on period instruments at original pitch. Recently all of Mozart's symphonies and piano concertos and the piano concertos of Beethoven have been recorded using period instruments.1 Performers in early music ensembles will never consider using A=440 as a pitch standard because music written before 1830 sounds closer to the composer's original intentions when performed at low pitch. 2 At present there is still no trend to play music of the late Romantic period at high pitch.
My interest in the history of musical pitch was stimulated during a meeting of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Restauratoren (A German society of conservators & restorers) in Salzburg, Austria in 1986. During this meeting, which was held at the musical instrument collection of the Carolino Augusteum Museum, I had the opportunity to examine a piano built by the prestigious firm J.B. Streicher in Vienna. Glued on the soundboard was a printed label which gave the instrument's serial number, the maker's name and location and finally the indication "440." Was it possible that Streicher intended his pianos to be tuned at A=440 in 1839? Was it possible, as early as 1839, to measure musical pitch in cycles per second? My European colleagues unanimously rejected the idea that Streicher could have intended "440" as a pitch indication. Instead it was suggested that this number was a production number or part of a date. Subsequently I found in Mantua, Italy still another Streicher piano which had a similar label with the same 440 indication. When I returned home I began to study the available sources on the history of musical pitch. I was able to confirm that Streicher was indeed recommending A=440 as the ideal pitch standard for his pianos as early as 1836.
In 1880 Alexander Ellis wrote an important essay on the history of musical pitch for the Society of Arts in London. 3 Apparently Ellis was unaware that Streicher in Vienna had advocated the use of A=440, but from his research I found the missing link between Streicher and a German physicist named Johann Heinrich Scheibler (1777-1837). Scheibler invented one of the first accurate methods for measuring musical pitch. He called the device a "tuning fork tonometer." It consisted of 52 forks tuned from A 219 2/3 to A 439 1/2 at 69 degrees Fahrenheit. The device and his amazingly accurate method of measuring beats were described in Scheibler's book The Physical and Musical Tonometer . 4 Ellis' research confirms that there was a connection between Scheibler in Stuttgart and Streicher in Vienna. A tuning fork with the name "Streicher" written in ink on one of the prongs and measuring A=443.2 was found in Scheibler's collection of forks after his death. 5 Scheibler's recommendation for A=440 as an international pitch standard had been adopted by a Congress of Physicists (Deutsche Naturforscherversammlung) in Stuttgart in 1834. It is very likely that the Streicher piano company adopted Scheibler's recommendation for A=440 shortly after the Stuttgart Congress. The label advocating A=440 in the Streicher piano built in 1839 indicates that Streicher supported the establishment of a pitch standard and that he was up to date with the latest developments in musical acoustics.
Scheibler measured the pitch of many early tuning forks with his tonometer. Many of the forks still existed when Ellis measured them again with more sophisticated technology. Ellis points out with admiration and amazement in his essay, that Scheibler's pitch measurements were extremely accurate.
THE TUNING FORK
At about the same time Cristofori invented the first piano in Italy, the tuning fork was invented in England by Royal trumpeter John Shore in 1711.6 Ellis provides detailed information on the history and care of tuning forks. I have attempted to extract the most useful information from his research. 7
Tuning forks vary slightly with changes in temperature. Contrary to the effects of heat on organ pipes, tuning forks are flattened by heat and sharpened by cold. When Ellis made his experiments on tuning forks he took the following precautions in handling them:
1. Tuning forks should not be touched by the bare hand or carried in the pocket.
2. When a tuning fork is sharply struck, the blow causes heat and therefore slightly flattens the fork.
3. Tuning forks are tuned by filing which causes heat and unsettles the molecular structure of the metal. After filing a fork, it should rest for about a week and then be rechecked. It will often rise by several beats in ten seconds in the course of cooling and settling.
4. Tuning forks are damaged by wrenching & twisting the prongs which is usually caused by dropping the fork.
5. Rust will slightly flatten a tuning fork and is generally more serious at the bend than on the prongs. Modern forks are plated or blued to protect them from rust.
Before turning to specific evidence about pitch level measurements for tuning pianos, here is a quick overview. It is very important to note, that, although pitch was generally much lower from 1600 to 1825, pitch began to rise in the early 19th century. A=440 was already recommended as a pitch standard in Germany in 1834. It appears that very few musicians found the standard pitch desirable. By 1879 Steinway in New York used a tuning fork which measured A=457.2 and in London, Steinways were tuned to A=454.7! Tuners don't need to worry about tuning Steinways from the late 19th century at A=440.
In England I saw three tuning forks, enclosed in a special box, which were used by a Broadwood Piano Co. tuner around 1850. The forks were used for piano tuning in different settings. Broadwood's low pitch equalled A=433 and was close to the A=435 pitch recommended by a French commission in 1859. Broadwood's medium pitch was 445 and the highest fork was tuned to A=454. Generally singers preferred low pitch, the medium pitch was probably used for home tuning and high pitch was used in tuning pianos to the orchestra and in concert settings. In the midst of this chaos, it is little wonder that the establishment of a standard, international compromise pitch soon became desirable.
CHRONOLOGICALLY ARRANGED TUNING LEVELS FOR EARLY PIANOS
EXTRACTED FROM THE RESEARCH OF ALEXANDER J. ELLIS
By comparing the date and place of a piano's manufacture to the information
given below, at least a general indication of the correct tuning level can be
determined. It is clear that much research still needs to be done on the history
of musical pitch in the United States.
YEAR PITCH PLACE & SOURCE
c. 1715 A= 419.9, England. Crude tenor fork, possibly made by John Shore, the inventor of the tuning fork.
c.1740-1812 A= 424.1, Eutin, Germany. Tuning fork owned by Franz Anton von Weber, father of Carl Maria von Weber.
c. 1750 A= 424.3, London. "Common music shop fork."
1751 A=422.5, London. Handel's tuning fork. The box which contains the fork bears the inscription: "This pitchfork was the property of the Immortal Handel and left by him at the Foundling Hospital, when the Messiah was performed in 1751."
c.1754 A= 422.6, Lille, France. Tuning fork found in the workshop of M. Francois, musical instrument maker.
1754 A=415, Dresden. Fork used to tune the catholic church organ built by G. Silbermanmn.
1776 A= 414.4, Breslau. Marpurg's pitch for clavichord tuning.
1780 A= 421.3, Vienna. Tuning fork of the Saxon organ builder Schulz who lived in Vienna during Mozart's lifetime.
1780 A=421.6 Vienna. Tuning fork used by the piano builder Stein. The fork was inherited by his son-in-law Streicher who Ellis calls "the present great pianoforte maker." A= 421.6 is probably the pitch which Mozart used to tune his fortepianos and clavichords.
1780 A= 422.3, Dresden. Tuning fork in the possession of Dresden court organist Kirsten.
1783 A=409, Paris. Fork of Pascal Taskin, Paris Court tuner.
1796 A= 436, St. Petersburg. Giuseppe Sarti's measurement of the pitch of the St. Petersburg opera. Chladni in his book on acoustics mentions that this pitch was "very high."
c. 1800 A= 422.7, London. From an old tuning fork belonging to the
Broadwood piano makers.
c.1810 A=430.0, Paris. Tuning fork belonging to M. Lemoine, a "celebrated amateur."
c.1820 A=433, London. "Pitch approved by Sir George Smart, conductor of the Philharmonic. "
1823 A= 424.2, Paris. Spontini's tuning fork for the Paris Italian Opera.
c.1825-1830, A= 435. Dresden. Tuning fork owned by Kapellmeister Reissiger.
c.1826 A=427.2, London. Old fork belonging to the Broadwood piano makers.
c.1826 A=427.6, London. An old fork belonging to the Broadwood Co.
1826. A=428.4, London. An old fork belonging to the Broadwood Co.
1829 A=425.5, Paris. Pitch of the piano at the opera.
1829 A= 434, Paris. Tuning fork used by the piano maker M. Montal.
1834 A=441.8, Berlin. orchestra and opera.
1834 A= 436.5, Vienna. Pitch given by Scheibler as one of the tuning standards for the Vienna Opera.
c. 1834 A=445.1, Vienna. The highest fork which Scheibler measured in Vienna and to which he attributed the "monstrous growth in the upswing in musical pitch."
c. 1834 A= 434, Paris. Pitch of the Paris opera.
c.1834 A=433.9, Vienna. Orchestra fork measured by Scheibler and referred to as "Vienna minimum."
1834 A=440.2, Stuttgart. Congress of Physicists, based on Scheibler's proposal of "the mean of the variation of Viennese grand pianos by temperature." Scheibler was the first person to recommend the adoption of A=440 as a standard pitch for piano tuning. The piano builder J.B. Streicher in Vienna began to include the indication "440" on his soundboard labels shortly after 1834.
c. 1834 A=443.2, Vienna. Streicher's fork as measured by Scheibler.
1836 A=443.3, Paris. Tuning fork for pianos built by Woelfel in Paris.
1836-39: A= 441, Paris. Opera pianos. Tuning fork owned by M. Leibner who tuned the pianos of the opera at the pitch of the orchestra. In 1849 it agreed precisely with the oboe of M. Vorroust.
1839 A=425.8, Bologna, Italy. Tuning fork used by Tadolini, the best piano tuner in Bologna, Italy.
1839 A=448, Hamburg. Opera pitch.
Date unknown. A=440.5, Paris. Opera. Fork said to have been adjusted by Pleyel.
1845 A=439.9, Turin Italy. Tuning fork.
1845 A=446.6, Milan, Italy. Tuning fork.
1845 A=445.4, Vienna. Fork used at the Vienna Conservatory.
1849-54 A=445.9, London. Broadwood piano company's original
medium pitch tuning fork belonging to tuner Alexander Finlayson, who died in 1854.
1852-1874 A= 452.5, London. Average pitch of the Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Sir Michael Costa (1846-54). Broadwood's tuner Mr. J. Black tuned to this pitch. Broadwood retained this pitch for concerts until 1874 when it was raised to A=454.7.
1854 A=446, Paris. Fork used to tune Pleyel pianos.
1854 A=450.5, Lille, France. Opera orchestra.
1856 A=446.2, Paris. Opera pitch. From a tuning fork sent to the French Society of Pianoforte makers.
1856 A=446.2, The Hague, Holland. Conservatory of music pitch. Fork sent to the French commission.
1857 A=448.4, Berlin. Opera. Tuning fork sent by the conductor Taubert to the French Society of Pianoforte makers.
1857 A=444.9, Naples. San Carlo opera theatre tuning fork sent to the French Society of pianoforte makers by E. Guillaume, conductor of the opera orchestra.
1859 A=443.5, Braunschweig, Germany. opera orchestra pitch. Fork sent to the French Commission by Kapellmeister Franz Abt.
1859 A=444.8, Turin, Italy. Opera orchestra. Tuning fork sent to the French Commission by director M. Coccia.
1859 A=444.8, Weimar. Orchestra fork sent to the French Commission.
1859 A=444.8, Württemburg, Germany. Fork of the concert orchestra.
1859 A=435, Karlsruhe, Germany. Pitch at the German opera. Kapellmeister Jos. Strauss felt that this pitch fatigued his singers the least and was the best pitch for the performance of operas from all periods. Strauss' fork became the pitch standard for the French Commission's Diapason Normal.
1859 A=435.3, Paris. Fork representing the French Commission's Diapason Normal Pitch. Presented by the Commission to John Broadwood & Sons Piano Co. in London.
1859 A=435.4, Paris. The French Commission Diapason Normal as actually constructed by Secretan and preserved at the Paris conservatory.
In the United States this pitch was sometimes called "International pitch." It was recommended by Chickering in Boston as the ideal pitch for tuning Chickering pianos.
1859 A=435.34 Paris. Secretan made a dozen tuning fork copies of the French Diapason Normal. Excluding one of these forks which is clearly too flat, A=435.34 is the general average pitch of the other eleven forks.
1859 A=441, Dresden. Opera. Tuning fork sent to the French Commission by Kapellmeister Reissiger, who wrote: The great elevation of the diapason destroys and effaces the effect and character of ancient music, of the masterpieces of Mozart, Gluck and Beethoven.
1859 A=446, Budapest. Opera.
1859 A=448, Liege, Belgium. Conservatory of music tuning fork.
1859 A=448, Lyons, France. Opera orchestra tuning fork.
1859 A=448.1, Munich, Germany. Opera tuning fork.
1859 A=448.8, Leipzig, Germany. Conservatory of music fork.
1859 A=449.8, Prague. Pitch of the opera orchestra.
1859 A=456.1, Vienna. Sharp Vienna pitch from a fork in the possession of the Streicher Piano Co. The Viennese orchestral pitch as used before the introduction of the French Diapason Normal.
1860 A=445.5, London. Copy of Broadwood's medium pitch fork made for the society of the arts.
1860 A=448.4, London. Society of the Arts tuning fork.
1862 A=437.8, Dresden. Court theatre.
1862 A=445, Vienna. Piano pitch based on the tuning fork of Kapellmeister Proch. The opera tuned during this period at A=466.
1862 A=454, Vienna. Piano pitch based on tuning fork owned by Kapellmeister Esser. (Compare this pitch with the one above from the same period.)
1869 A=443.1, Bologna, Italy. Liceo Musicale.
1869 A=448.2, Leipzig, Germany. Tuning fork used by the Gewandhaus orchestra.
1874 A=454.7, London. Fork representing the highest pitch used in Philharmonic concerts. Used as the highest pitch used by the Broadwood Piano Co.
1876 A= 446.7, London. Concert pitch.
1877 A=449.9, London. Standard fork used by Collard piano Co.
1877 A=454.1, London. From a tuning fork used by Hipkins to tune for the Crystal Palace concerts.
1878 A=446.8, Vienna. Opera pitch.
1878 A=448.1, London. Tuning fork made by Walker.
1878 A= 436, London. Standard pitch of church organs taken from Metzler's tuning fork.
1878 A=445.1, London. Society of Arts pitch.
1878 A=449.9, London. Covent Garden opera orchestra during performance as measured by Hipkins.
1878 A=451.9, London. British army regulations. Pitch for wind instruments.
1879 A=445.5, London. Her Majesty's opera orchestra during performance from a fork made by Hipkins.
1879 A=449.7, London. Pitch of the opera orchestra at Covent Garden during performance.
1879 A=454.7, London. Tuning fork used by Steinway & Sons to tune pianos in London.
1879 A= 455.3, London. From a tuning fork representing the concert pitch used by the Erard Piano Company.
1879, A=457.2, New York. From a tuning fork used by Steinway & Sons!
1880 A=444.9, London. Her majesty's opera. From a tuning fork of the theatre as measured by Hipkins.
1880 A=446.2, London. Tuning fork used by John Broadwood and Co for in house tunings but not for public concerts.
1. See, for example, the complete set of Mozart Piano Concertos, recorded at low pitch by Malcolm Bilson, fortepiano with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Elliot Gardner, Archiv recordings.
2. Experiments have shown that a low pitch A tuning fork held between the F-holes of a Stradivarius violin (originally constructed to play at low pitch) produces a richer and stronger resonance than a high A=440 fork.
3. Long out of print, Ellis' studies have been reprinted by Frits Knuf publishers in Amsterdam in 1968. This book can be found in any good music library.
4. Johann H. Scheibler. Der physikalische und musikalische Tonmesser Essen: Baedeker, 1834. Scheibler also wrote a treatise on organ tuning: A method for correctly tuning the organ in equal temperament by means of beats and the metronome, Krefeld: Schüller, 1834.
5. Alexander J. Ellis."On the History of Musical Pitch," Journal of the Society of Arts, (March 5, 1880). Reprinted in Studies in the History of Music Pitch, Amsterdam: Frits Knuf, 1968, p. 44. Ellis measured the pitch of the Streicher fork at A=442.78
6. Ellis, op.cit., p. 15
Your piano is designed to sound its best when tuned to
A-440 (A above middle C vibrates at 440 cycles per second), the international
pitch standard. At this pitch, power and tonal range are optimum and your piano
will match the pitch of other instruments. When your piano varies from A-440,
pitch adjustments are required to bring it back to standard. By always
maintaining your piano at standard pitch, you create long-term tuning stability
because the strings and structure stay in equilibrium. You also ensure proper
ear training because you always hear your music in the correct key.
Why does a piano's pitch change?
Piano strings change pitch for two primary reasons: the initial
stretching and settling of strings when the piano is new, and soundboard
movement due to humidity variation. In the case of new pianos, the pitch drops
quickly for the first couple of years as the new strings stretch and wood parts
settle. It's very important to maintain any new piano at the proper pitch during
this period, so the string tension and piano structure can reach a stable
equilibrium. (Most piano manufacturers recommend three to four tunings the first
year, and at least two per year after that.)
Aside from this initial settling, climate change is the main cause of pitch change. That's because the piano's main acoustical structure -- the soundboard -- is made of wood. While wooden soundboards produce a wonderful sound, they also react constantly to climate changes. As the relative humidity goes up, the soundboard swells, increasing its crowned shape and stretching the piano's strings to a higher pitch. Then during dry times the soundboard flattens out, lowering tension on the strings and causing the pitch to drop. The drop in the dry season tends to exceed the rise during humid times, so the net result is a drop in pitch each year that the piano isn't serviced.
If a piano has gone without tuning for an extended period, its pitch may have dropped far below A- 440. This means that each of its approximately 220 strings needs to be tightened considerably, adding tremendous additional tension to the piano's structure. The problem is that as each string is tightened, the additional load causes the pitch of previously adjusted strings to change. Thus it is impossible to make a substantial change in pitch and end up with a fine, accurate tuning in one step. Instead, a process called "pitch raising" must first be done, in which all strings are raised to their correct average tension levels. Only then can the piano be accurately tuned. In other words, accurate tuning is only possible when all strings are so close to their proper tension that only small further changes are needed during tuning. These small changes then do not disturb the tuning of other strings.
Like your car, your piano is a major investment which deserves regular servicing to keep it working well and preserve its value. Most importantly, the well-maintained piano sounds better, plays better, and gives you and your family a wealth of musical pleasure.