‘Better sharp than out of tune’

12th July 2011 | Concerts, Daily Life, Musings, Travel | 8 comments

At a Gaudier Ensemble rehearsal last week my colleagues, who come from various European countries, were discussing the unstoppable rise in pitch. Here in England we still tune to A=440 Hz, which has been ‘standard pitch’ since the mid-twentieth-century, though in the rest of Europe standard pitch has gradually become somewhat higher, at A=444 or even A=445. Even in the UK, it’s increasingly the case that a higher A is used at the request of visiting artists.  Of course this must be a major pain for piano tuners, who sometimes have to tweak the entire piano by a tiny fraction, and back again to A=440 when the visiting artist has gone. Alternatively, a concert hall has to keep two pianos, one tuned to A=440 and the other to A=444.

I asked my string-playing friends from mainland Europe whether they prefer playing with a higher A? They all said no, adding wistfully that their instruments resonate more freely and sound better with a lower A. So what’s driving the inexorable rise in pitch? In psycho-acoustical terms, there seems to be a feeling that playing sharp adds brilliance to the tone. My friends said that in orchestras they notice that when the wind players are playing a little sharp, the string players discreetly tune up to match them, and so the whole vicious circle goes on. Amongst orchestral players there’s a rueful saying, ‘Better sharp than out of tune’. We agreed that the constant rise in pitch is mysterious, given that no-one appears to be pushing for it, and moreover that it doesn’t seem to benefit anyone, certainly not the lovely old instruments built when an even gentler A was in use.

8 Comments

  1. rootlesscosmo

    When I first became aware that pitch was creeping higher, one of my thoughts was of sympathy for singers, whose upper notes are made more difficult by the change. Have there been protests from them?

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Good point! I have not discussed this point with any singers, but I imagine you must be right – the human body surely can’t have changed so much that high notes have become easier for today’s singers!

      Reply
  2. Deborah Saville

    I have noticed that if you listen to a cappella choirs, those from this country tend to go flat (apart from the best ones, of course!), whilst African choirs tend to go sharp. Not directly linked to your point, but I wonder if anyone else has noticed this?

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      How interesting! Not being an expert on choirs, I haven’t noticed this myself, but perhaps others have. If you are right, perhaps it is something to do with the methods of voice production in each case?

      Reply
  3. Jeff Moore

    Sorry for the late response. I just posted this article on facebook and had this interesting response from Merlin Shepherd, a Klezmer clarinettist friend: “…Until around 1926 there was a European “High Pitch” and I have a couple clarinets at HP, somewhere almost a quarter-tone sharper than 440. Around 466 or something. So it would seem that since 1926 when 440 was established as the standard, we’ve actually come down. Many clarinet makers switched to the new tuning and stamped Low Pitch or LP on their instruments. During the transition you find instruments stamped HP too.” Fascinating stuff!

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Yes, fascinating! I hadn’t realised, until I did some reading around the subject when writing the original post, that there had been times and places in the past few centuries where pitch was higher than it is now. Sometimes it seems that pitch was higher in one city than another in the same country. As far as I can tell, ‘high pitch’ was never standard for any length of time or across any wide area, but it’s amazing to think it was occasionally higher than the highest European pitch in use today.

      Reply
  4. Nico de Villiers

    I find it particularly interesting when working with singers on Baroque repertoire. They are used to singing at Baroque pitch, which is lower than today’s concert pitch. This requires the repetiteur at times needing to play a transposed-from-sight version of the work. Since the voice is basically a set of muscles, these are trained within the general effort level of the Baroque key if this edition is used. At other times I have worked with singers who would actually work on both the baroque key edition and the concert pitch edition during the preparatory period in order to prepare the voice for both situations. This means that they are stretching the instrument slightly more at the extremes. Singing an aria or a whole role for that matter at varying pitch standards furthermore include negotiating the transitional parts in the voice as well. A parallel that could be drawn on the piano would be to for instance to practise a keyboard work with the standard ca. 23.5 mm for the white keys and also other versions where the keys are for instance 20.5 mm or 25.5 mm. This makes a substantial difference to the stretch (or lack thereof) in the hand. To furthermore complicate things one would have to practise the work in two or three different keys – resulting at times in some serious fingering negotiations.

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      ‘Serious fingering negotiations’ indeed! I’ve always found it very tricky to switch suddenly from, say, the piano to the fortepiano where the keys are narrower. All of a sudden the hand position for (eg) an octave, which is so ingrained for pianists, has to be adjusted slightly. In the heat of the moment one tends to revert to the learned position, resulting in split octaves.

      Reply

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