You have just been seated for the concert. The musicians are assembling and creating a variety of dissonant sounds. All of a sudden everything becomes quiet and the concertmaster (a violinist) approaches the podium and requests the oboe play an A. The woodwinds tune to it. The brass follow suit. After both are tuned we hear another A and note the concertmaster tunes the violin to this A. That done, the entire orchestra tunes to the concertmaster’s A. Once the concertmaster is satisfied the orchestra is in tune the Conductor approaches the podium and the orchestra is ready to play in concert pitch.
Each musician playing a string instrument tunes to the A, which is really A4, and tunes the other strings by remembering the intervals between the other strings to attain a perfect fifth between all of them.
Most of the time, an orchestra will tune to the oboe, as it is a very stable instrument. Since the oboe can’t be tuned it makes sense to tune everything else to it. Its rigid pitch makes it serve in the best interest of the orchestra. In the case of the piano, the orchestra most likely tune to it.
Standard Musical Pitch
Historically speaking, it wasn’t until the 19th century that an effort was made to standardize musical pitch. For many, pitch was controlled with the use of tuning forks. Even here the pitches of the A above middle C varied from 409Hz (cycles per second) to 455.4 Hz. Today A is a frequency of 440Hz. During the time between 1910-1030 woodwind and brass players often owned two sets of instruments. In this way they were able to play with orchestras who chose different standard pitches (1).
In 1953 the London International Conference was able to set up the A4 tuning reference to the frequency of 440Hz the current worldwide standard concert pitch for all orchestras (2). Over the years A4 has evolved to reach 440Hz. Despite the standardization of pitch many orchestras choose to tune higher because higher pitches sound more brilliant. Among the orchestras varying from the standard are San Francisco Symphony tunes to 441or442 Hz: The Boston Symphony Orchestra to 444Hz: The New York Philharmonic to 443Hz and the Berlin Philharmonic to 445Hz (2, 3).
If you are attending an ancient music concert you will note the orchestra uses a different A4 tuning reference. For example Renaissance music tunes to 466Hz, Venetian baroque to 440Hz, German baroque to 415Hz and French baroque to 392 Hz. (2).
What does all this mean? Simply feel free to choose the frequency that sounds best to you.
- Cavanagh, Lynn. A brief history of the establishment of international standard pitch. http://www.wam.hr/sadrzaj/us/Cavanagh_440Hz.pdf.
- Why should musical instruments be tuned up to A. https://www.3d-variius/why-musical-instruments-tuned-uo-a/.
- Concert pitch-Wikipedia. https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Concert_pitch.