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Saturday morning quotes 5.30: Tempo and pitch II

December 12, 2015

This is the second of two posts examining tempo and pitch in early music.  Naturally, we can only speculate as to the precise nature and relative importance of tempo and pitch in historical times.  But we can certainly point out how specialists and performers of what we call early music today have misconstrued scant available information on tempo and pitch to reinforce a thoroughly modern aesthetic. Also, where tempo and pitch were once based on functionality and a variety of local traditions, today’s practitioners have created a standardization that rivals the foolish consistency of the McDonald’s French Fry.  Having slowed the tempo in our last post, today we touch on pitch.

”He that toucheth pitch shall be defiled therewith…”

– Ecclesiasticus 13:1, King James Bible

Historical pitch is an admittedly sticky topic that demands a great deal of elbow grease in order to remove the congealed outer layers and get to the substratum. When we get to the heart of the matter, there are more questions than answers.  Why A?  Why 440 Hertz? Or why did 440 sag to 415 as the modern standard for performing baroque music?

Anyone who has attended an orchestral concert can recall that seemingly endless period of cacophony at the start as each player runs through their music to prepare for the tricky bits, ignoring the presence of other musicians and the audience.  Then, like a flock of errant yet baffled geese, they all suddenly get in line when the oboe decides its time to declare the meaning of A.  Why does the oboe get to be chief goose?  Simply because of its loud and piercing honk.

It turns out that much of what we know about historical pitch standards is based on surviving historical wind instruments (including organs) which, allowing for minor adjustments of length for fine-tuning, preserve the quality of noise the instrument was intended to make.  But the intent is not clear-cut since many high wind instruments were meant to transpose their notated parts as they appear in original scores.

“In the early 17th century instruments were classified into three categories: high, natural, and low (strumenti acuti, coristi, and gravi). Like the violin, the curved cornett was in the highest of the three. While the highest normal clef for singers was C1 (“soprano clef”), cornett parts were usually notated in “violin” or G2 clef. G2 was a chiavetta, or high clef. For singers, the use of chiavette normally implied downward transposition. But by the beginning of the 17th century the upper instrumental part in violin clef is sometimes marked come sta or ally aka to prevent transposition downward. Banchieri (1601) wrote that the violin clef was more common for instruments than voices because “che suonando cosi all’alta fanno più viva l’harmonia.” (when they are played thus at high pitch they make a more lively sound.)”

– Bruce Haynes, “Cornetts and Historical Pitch Standards” Historic Brass Society Journal
Volume 6 (1994), p. 89.

With the information above, we can judge that transposition from notated pitch was common, particularly downward transposition for singers.  This leads us to a discussion of the affliction known today as “perfect pitch”, also known as absolute pitch but more aptly called “inflexible pitch reference”.  Anyone who works with singers has encountered this unfortunate phenomenon, which is nothing less than an enormous obstruction when singing early music.

Those who possess an inflexible reference pitch are able to identify exact tones, but only to a pitch standard of our modern A=440.  For performing early music, a sense of relative pitch is necessary to understand how tones relate to one other.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that the inflexible reference pitch is adjustable through training.  A 2013 study at the University of Chicago reports that a group of listeners who claimed to have perfect pitch were subjected to a slowly modulated pitch during the course of listening to a longer piece of music.  By the end of the piece, most listeners agreed that the music was in tune even though it was not.

The late Bruce Haynes, quoted above, wrote the definitive reference on historical pitch standards in A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of “A”, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland and Oxford, 2002.  We learn that, in 1776, Sir John Hawkins first described that the tuning fork as a reference pitch was invented in 1711 by the trumpeter, John Shore.  We also learn that until recent times the reference pitch was C rather than A.

For modern reference pitch, the note A above middle C sung or played on an instrument is matched to a pure tone that vibrates at a frequency of 440 Hertz, or one cycle per second.  This standard was first proposed in 1838 but not established until the passage of 100 years in 1939 by the International Organization for Standardization.  Haynes points out that over the past 400 years, what we call “A” has ranged anywhere from 380 Hz to 500 Hz.  In Syntagma Musicum (1615 – 1619), Michael Praetorius described two dispositions for “A” with chorton at around 460 Hz and kammerton, or chamber pitch, at around 416 Hz.  Organs in Leipzig, Hamburg, and Weimar that were known to have been played by Bach varied in pitch up to A=480 Hz. Mozart’s “A” seems to have been 421 Hz.

While 440 as the modern reference pitch seems to be here to stay, there is a move afoot to switch to C=256 or A=432 Hz, which Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) identified as in synchronization with planetary motion and the movement of the sun (Ioannis Keppleri Harmonices mvndi libri v., 1619).  A=432 differs from A=440 by eight vibrations per second, which acts to remove a bit of tension from modern music.

Whatever pitch standard we choose, it is important to understand that history tells us it was flexible.  But one thing we know for certain is that a pitch standard of A=415 for baroque music is nothing more than a convenient compromise for keyboardists and is otherwise just plain silly.


  1. I often reflect that it would have been so much better if we had settled on a standard “early music pitch” of about a’=392 instead of 415. It might even be “historical” for late 17th C music, but in any case it would solve the problem of the continuo archlute (where string lengths of at least 67cm are impossible to tune to g’ at either 440 or 415) and the problem of the lute quartet (where the 44cm lute can then function as a “lute in D” because it is roughly C in terms of modern pitch, and so on down the lutes of the quartet), not to mention lute songs where many singers can sing them at 440 but should probably be persuaded not to in order to allow a more natural expression of the words. Having a modern standard for “early” music which is a tone away from modern pitch, rather than a semitone, would also allow more flexibility in terms of mixing old and new instruments, transposing at a keyboard tuned in an unequal temperament, etc, etc.

    • Thanks for your comments, Martin. I avoided the topic of strings in this post because there are others, including you, who have a much more practical knowledge of historical examples. As a singer, it is abundantly clear that notated pitch in early music is just a guideline and not an absolute. We carry this understanding forward into our repertory for solo voice and lute because, as you say, the texts are much clearer and more expressive at a lower pitch. Our standard “A” is in fact 392 these days. As for the pitch of A=415, my understanding is that it was determined early on in the early music revival because it was easy for keyboardists to switch back and forth with a transposing mechanism on one of two manuals.

  2. dwsdolce permalink

    So, since an absolute definition of a or c is just silly, how do you tune on an everyday basis? Whatever feels good?

    • Thanks for your questions, David. I rather like the guidelines from the early lute tutors – tune as high as your first string will go. That practice implies flexibility depending upon the thickness of your strings, and also implies a sensitivity to the physical properties of the instrument rather than an abstract standard like A=440.

  3. “fanno più viva l’harmonia”?

  4. Dan permalink

    After wrestling with this vexed question of pitch since at least 1976 on lutes, vihuelas, guitars, violas da gamba- with singers, other instrumentalists, and- worst of all, all by myself- attempting to force gut strings to go to distant extremes both high & low, to remote places where no gut string has gone before… After all this, I now agree strongly with dwsdolc, above-

    “Whatever feels good?”

    YES! Whatever feels good- and sounds good, too- (not a bad thing, sounding good). Sometimes nylon & KF are forced, dire necessities in the real world, esp. when $ are at stake- but at home, just my ears, the instruments, and the occasional soprano- “She Whose Range Requirements Must Be Obeyed”

    Great discussion, and a fine followup to last week’s “Tempus Futilious Gettingaway Fromus” discussion,

    • Thanks, Dan. As we who accompany know, lutes are such temperamental instruments that they rarely cooperate willingly with the player let alone with the singer. My experience is that I have to be willing to tune up or down or sideways depending upon who I am playing with at the moment. Down is usually nicer and the lute complains a little less.

  5. Howard Posner permalink

    Try telling a bassoonist, who would otherwise be faced with the prospect of needing six or seven baroque instruments at $6,000 a pop to accommodate the likely pitch requirements, that standard baroque pitch is just a compromise for keyboard players and otherwise just plain silly.

    • I would happily tell a bassoonist to use those extensions to adjust to the necessary pitch, as they usually do.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Saturday morning quotes 7.5: Conventions | Unquiet Thoughts
  2. Saturday morning quotes 7.37: Notes | Unquiet Thoughts

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