History of Pitch

Discussion Paper:

A440 Tuning ForkHigh vs Low Pitch in Brass InstrumentsA440 Tuning Fork


“The Diapason Normal”



In the study of historical brass instruments, one always comes upon the fact that some instruments are pitched differently than others. This is not just a matter of tuning adjustments, but of specific design parameters employed by the makers of these instruments and related directly to the year of manufacture. For example, all of my US Civil War era horns are high pitch (A=454) as are most of my pre 1900 instruments. It is therefore interesting to the brass historian to know the history behind the development of today’s Standard Pitch of A=440 Hz (Hz = Hertz = cycles per second). The following is an attempt to provide a historical sequence of events leading to the worldwide final acceptance today of A=440 Hz as the modern pitch.

Churches in Europe

Saint Thomas Church, Leipzig - where J.S. Bach used to work

Prior to the 19th century, there was no concerted effort to standardize musical pitch and the levels across Europe varied widely. Even within one church, the pitch used could vary over time because of the way organs were tuned. Generally, the end of an organ pipe would be hammered inwards to a cone, or flared outwards to raise or lower the pitch. When the pipe ends became frayed by this constant process, they were all trimmed down, thus raising the overall pitch of the organ.

Pitches did not just vary from place to place, or over time—pitch levels could vary even within the same city. The pitch used for an English cathedral organ in the 17th century, for example, could be as much as five semitones lower than that used for a domestic keyboard instrument in the same city

Archeological evidence

Variable Pitch pipe

Some idea of the variance in pitches can be gained by examining old tuning forks, organ pipes and other sources. For example, an English pitchpipe from 1720 plays the A above middle C at 380 Hz, while the organs played by Johann Sebastian Bach in Hamburg, Leipzig and Weimar were pitched at A=480 Hz, a difference of around four semitones. In other words, the A produced by the 1720 pitchpipe would have been at the same frequency as the F on one of Bach’s organs.

Pitch inflation,- Deutsch Marks

The advent of the orchestra as an independent body (as opposed to an accompanying ensemble) brought pitch inflation to the fore again. The rise in pitch at this time can be seen reflected in tuning forks. An 1815 tuning fork from the Dresden opera house gives A=423.2 Hz while one of eleven years later from the same opera house gives A=435 Hz. At La Scala in Milan, the A above middle C rose as high as 451 Hz.


Diapason Normal, a copy of Koenig's tuning fork

In the 18th Century and onwards, the standard pitch in use was the so-called “classical pitch” of A=422 Hz to which Bach Mozart and Beeetoven wrote. But by the middle of the 19th century, the number of vibrations had increased in practice to A=435. An early effort to obtain wide recognition of this pitch, the French Government in 1859 , acting with the advice of Halevy, Meyerbeer, Auber, Ambroise, and Rossini, established by law the “Diapason Normal”. And deposited at the Paris Conservatory of Music a standard tuning fork which was to be the standard pitch or “diapason”. The frequencies generated by vibrations of this fork were stated to be 435 Hz for A above middle C. Other countries gradually followed, and, with few exceptions, the low pitch derived from the Diapason Normal seemed to prevail throughout the musical world – with Great Britain the last to fall in step.

The struggle to hold on…

In the mid 19th Century, Sir George Smart established a fork for the Philharmonic Society at A=433.2. Forks intended for this vibration number, stamped “Philharmonic,” were sold as late as 1846. But about that year the performing pitch of the Society had reached 452.5. Sir Michael Costa was the conductor 1846—1854, and from his acceptance of that high pitch the fork became known as Costa’s, and its inception was attributed to him, though on insufficient grounds. In 1894, a further rise in the fork to A= 454 Hz was instigated by Sir Charles Halle. The British army was bound by His Majesty’s Rules and Regulations to play at the Philharmonic pitch, and a fork tuned to A=452.5 Hz in 1890 was preserved as the standard for the Military Training School Hall.

Queen Victoria

On January 12, 1885 it was officially announced in London that Queen Victoria had sanctioned the adoption of this “Diapason Normal” as the French Standard was called, for her private band and that it would in future be used at state concerts.. Although the Philharmonic Society adopted the Diapason Normal in 1896, the military bands did not go along with it. In point of fact, they went gradually higher. Further, the brass bands, so important in the North of England and in Wales, were not far behind them.

There were still variations, however. The diapason normal resulted in middle C being tuned at approximately 258.65 Hz. An alternative pitch standard known as “philosophical” or “scientific” pitch, which fixed middle C at exactly 256 Hz, and resulted in the A above it being tuned to approximately 430.54 Hz ,gained some popularity due to its mathematical convenience (the frequencies of all the Cs being a power of two). This never received the same official recognition as A= 435, however, and was not as widely used.

The proprietors of Queen’s Hall, London, did much for it when they undertook the alteration, at great expense, of their large concert organ, which had only just been erected. In 1896 the Philharmonic Society decided upon a performing pitch, ostensibly at 68° Fahrenheit, of A=439; and in 1899 Messrs Broadwood made a successful effort to get this vibration number accepted by their competitors in Great Britain. The high pitch remained only where there were large concert organs not yet lowered, and with the military and brass bands.

The temperature problem

The consideration of temperature as affecting the use of a standard pitch was not attended to when the French government issued its ordonnance. The 15° Centigrade attached to the description of the standard fork in Paris was intended for the definition and verification of the fork only. The alteration of the fork due to heat is scarcely perceptible, but wind instruments, and particularly the organ, rise almost proportionately to the increase in temperature of the surrounding air, because sound travels at an enhanced rate as the temperature rises. The coefficient of this rise is equivalent to half a vibration (0.5) per degree Fahr. per second. D. J. Blaikley in his Essay on Musical Pitch, (volume, appendice, 1900) recorded their experience of wind instruments under changes of temperature and indicated that the French Commission, in establishing the Diapason Normal, should have chosen a temperature of 20° C.

High vs Low

Eb vs Bb

In Germany, the bands and orchestras in the mid- to late 1800’s played in a pitch where A=440 Hz. This is the standard “low pitch” of today (which later became known as “American Standard Pitch” when it finally came to use in the US). However, at the same time, bands and orchestras in France, England and the US were playing in “high pitch” (A=452.5 Hz). In fact, in the US, “military high pitch” was even higher at A=457 Hz. Around the turn of the century, the use of low pitch became more common in the US, France and England. However, as it hadn’t completely replaced high pitch, brass horns were often offered with slides to allow the player to play in either pitch, depending on what was required and what pitch the other instruments were in. In 1917, the American Federation of Musicians formally adopted A=440 as the “official” pitch for the US, and it became known as “American Standard Pitch”.


Treaty of Versailles

Following World War I, a little known provision of the Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919) adopted A=440 as the standard pitch for all signatory nations. Following these events, the production of horns with accessory slides for high pitch declined, and finally stopped.


In 1939, an international conference recommended that the A above middle C be tuned to 440 Hz. This standard was taken up by the International Organization for Standardization in 1955 (and was reaffirmed by them in 1975) as ISO 16. The difference between this and the diapason normal is due to confusion over which temperature the French standard should be measured at. The initial standard was A = 439 Hz but this was superseded by A = 440 Hz after complaints that 439 Hz was difficult to reproduce in a laboratory owing to 439 being a prime number.

Salvation Army goes low pitch

Salvation Army - New Zealand 1900

In Britain, in March 1964. the International Music Board of the Salvation Army noted an announcemnt of the manufacturers of brass instruments that they would cease production of brass band high pitch instrunents and produce only instruments in the low pitch. The Board recommended that the Salvation Army gradually convert to low pitch instruments. Major Dean Golfin, National Secretary for Bands and Songsters wrote: “In one sense the brass band movement is still living in the mid-nineteeth century. This is in the important matter of PITCH. In Britain, Canada, Australia and new Zealand, brass bands- both Army and non-Army (SA) use instruments built in High Pitch. At this pitch A is 452.5 vibrations per second. For the last twenty five years, all other forms of music making throughout the world have agreed on a universal pitch of A equals 440. But many scholarly musicians feel that low pitch is still too high! Why is this so?” He goes on in great detail about the history of pitch in British brass instruments and notes that the Salvation army’s own factory in St Albans was already building more instruments in Low Pitch. He finishes by noting “In a few years we will all be saying ‘Why didn’t we do this years ago?’ “

To confuse matters further, it should be noted that modern symphonies now occasionally tune to A=442Hz!!

Credits: The above has been a compilation of information gleaned through a search using Google and various websites – including The Online Encyclopedia Britannica, and the Salvation Army’s “Musician Newsletter” of March 21, 1964.
Philip Holcomb

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