You’ve experienced it a hundred times or more: the concert is about to begin. The Concertmaster comes onstage and asks the principal oboist to give the A, and you hear the orchestra members play the same note one by one until the whole group has played it. Some questions I have often been asked:
- Why an A?
- Why the oboe?
Every string instrument in the orchestra has an open string in the pitch of A (called “La” in most of the rest of the world), so the string players can get their A string in tune with the oboe and then tune their other strings in relation to it. Similarly, every woodwind and brass instrument can play an A.
So A is the standardized tuning note in every symphony orchestra in the world. But now it gets a bit complicated. Musical pitch is determined by the speed at which air has been made to vibrate by a musical instrument or voice. That speed or frequency is measured as the number of complete vibration cycles – backwards and forwards – made by a particle of air in one second. These one second cycles are measured in something called Hertz, and one complete cycle in one second equals one Hertz (Hz). The higher the Hertz number, the higher the pitch we perceive. As a general rule the human ear can hear pitches from 20Hz to 20,000Hz (20 kHz).
Without getting too detailed, the A the oboist plays was established as “International Standard Pitch” in the early 20th Century, at an agreed-upon frequency of 440Hz. But prior to that time, there was no standardization, and accepted pitch varied wildly from country to country and sometimes even from city to city. This made traveling from place to place extremely difficult, and the traveling musician had to be prepared to adapt. Two traveling musicians in the 18th Century come to mind. We know for example that Handel preferred an A that was only 423Hz, while Mozart liked his A to be at 422Hz. These are almost a half-step below our accepted modern A!
In general, there was a trend throughout the 19th Century towards higher and higher pitch level, partially due to a demand for a more brilliant sound to fill larger concert halls. This trend was fairly easy for string instruments to accommodate; they simply tightened their strings to achieve a higher frequency. Woodwind and brass instruments were a problem and had to be shortened or totally redesigned for the higher pitch. Organ pipes had to be completely replaced, and the human voice became more and more strained by the demand for higher pitch.
Even now, when A=440Hz is internationally accepted, things are far from settled. In fact, pretty much the only country that regularly uses A=440 is the United Kingdom. Most other countries, including the Unites States, use A=442 or even higher. Orchestras in Germany and Austria are known to use A=446 or 447! I have personally experienced the problem of trying to play the flute at such a high pitch level…it's very uncomfortable. The Redlands Symphony, thanks to our stalwart principal oboist Francisco Castillo, uses a pitch of A=440. Thanks, Chisco, for making our orchestra internationally relevant!