They Sound a Little Flat to Me

Writing in Huffington Post a week ago, Elizabeth Weinfield lauded a trend in music performance – that of tuning instruments to the frequencies that were more standard when older pieces of music were written and played.  A while back I wrote about learning of temperaments – different ways of tuning instruments to make them sound good from one note to the next in a scale, and while that’s related, this topic is more about what base frequency performers use for an A.  Modern players have settled on A at 440 hertz, but the article points out that even there we hear variation – Chicago and Boston’s prominent orchestras both tune to 442, as does the New York Philharmonic; much of central Europe goes high too.

The author notes that 415 is becoming a new standard for period music – modern ears would hear that A as a solid A flat, a half-step down from A 440.  The range for A in modern times has been quite large, all the way from 392 in 18th century France to 465 in 17th century Venice!  Weinfield also points out that the notion of a universal standard is relatively new; local and regional standards predominated in earlier centuries.

I would not have known enough to know that achieving accuracy in period performances is a trend – one the author sees as welcome.  Despite the logistical challenges of tuning or switching instruments between different pieces of music in performances attending to period perfection, clearly some find it worthy of the effort.  I think we can also admit that all the fuss makes for a wonky, fun thing to discuss for those in the know at intermission.

Thanks for reading.

Ryan

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