Society of Arts Pitch

Part III - Discussion and Action Arising

[As we saw in the previous page, the discussion came down to a choice between C512, the preferred but too courageous option, and C528, the compromise option with international support.  Because we are used to thinking in A these days, I've added the A figures after the C figures in the report of the discussion below.  But beware - I've used two different approaches to try to make it more meaningful.  C512, the Society, using Just Intonation, equates to A426.7.  These days we refer to that as A430, so I've called it that. The Society intends C528 to mean A440, Stuttgart Pitch, so I've called it that, even though an Equal Temperament conversion would make it A444.]

A proposal to adopt the report:

The Rev. GT Driffield said he rose for the purpose of proposing that the report be adopted.  He had had the pleasure of attending many of the meetings of the Committee from which this report had emanated, and was familiar with the evidence upon which it was based.  He had been much interested by the valuable information which had been contributed by the various members of the Committee.  After much deliberation and a careful examination of all the points adduced, he thought the Committee might be said to have arrived at a judicious conclusion.  It would be observed that in the report there was no attempt made to dictate to the meeting, or to the musical public generally; at the same time, without going over any of the arguments adduced in the report, with which they were all familiar, he thought it was easy to see the general conclusion towards which it led, viz., that it was not only desirable to have a uniform pitch, by which all public and private musical arrangements should be guided hereafter, but also that the pitch should be reduced in some greater or less degree from that great height to which it had gradually, and, as he thought accidentally risen.  He could not think there had been any advantage attained by raising the pitch to the point at which it was now proved to have arrived – nor did he think this had been done intentionally.  That pitch had been shown to be somewhat detrimental, not only to the human voice, but to the general interests of music; and therefore the Committee had come to the conclusion in settling a pitch to be the guide of the musical world; of recommending that the existing pitch should be lowered.  He therefore had much pleasure, not only as a member of the Committee, but as an independent member of this larger meeting, in proposing:-

“That the Report now presented by the Committee appointed by the Council of the Society of Arts on the 3rd of June, 1859, be received and adopted.”


Mr. Harry Chester said it having been deemed desirable that this resolution should be seconded by a member of the Council, he had much pleasure in rising for that purpose.  He felt considerable interest in the success of this report, because he happened to be the individual who, during the time that the chair was occupied by his friend Mr. Dilke, proposed that the Society should move in this matter.  He (Mr. Chester) was placed upon the committee as a member of the Council, but he had purposely abstained from attending any of the meeting, for, having neither musical nor scientific knowledge, he felt that his attendance would be of no service.  The report which the Committee had drawn up, he must say, appeared to him an admirable document, because it was so precise, so clear, and, at the same time, so perfectly moderate, that it was impossible for a man having common sense, apart from musical acquirement, to find any difficulty in comprehending either its premises or its conclusions.  He was quite certain that the concluding recommendation of the report would be received by the meeting with the same kind feeling as had prevailed throughout the proceedings of the committee.  There could be but one common object, and that was to do what was best for the interests of musical at home and abroad, and he felt that if the meeting and the musical world generally, came to the conclusion shadowed forth in this report, it would not be found a difficult matter to give practical effect to it.  They could not, in this country, make a law for a compulsory uniform pitch, as had been done in a neighbouring state, but he hoped they should show that in this free country they could manage things as well as in other countries; and although they could not have compulsory legislation in a matter of this kind, they might have a legislation of their own by which they could obtain the same good practical results.  He had in his mind a particular course of action to give effect to this resolution if it were passed, but the time had not yet arrived to enter upon that.  The business at present before them was the reception and adoption of the report of the committee, after which a resolution could be moved inviting the meeting to accept the exact number of vibrations which it had been thought expedient to adopt.


The Chaiman put the question, "That the report be adopted," which was carried unanimously.

Point of order:

Sir John Herschell, Bart FRS, would suggest that this question ought to be divided into two parts, first, the reception of the report and secondly, as to the particular number of vibrations.  He should like to know whether the resolution already passed extended to the point deciding the number of vibrations to be adopted.

The Chairman said the report was so worded that its adoption did not preclude anyone from proposing the acceptance of any particular pitch.

Motion on the actual Pitch to be proposed: 

Mr. Cipriani Potter begged to propose the next resolution:-

“That the pitch of 528 [A440] vibrations for C be recommended for universal adoption in this country.”

There would, he said, be no difficulty attending such a change as this involved, and it would not necessitate any great alteration in wind and other instruments.  It was the happy medium, being only a quarter of a note lower than the present Opera and Philharmonic pitch.  The great object was to fix a pitch, and it appeared from all the opinions they had heard, that the one he recommended was the most appropriate, and he thought its adoption quite feasible.  If they took a lower pitch it would not answer so well for certain instruments.  The change would be a great help to the human voice and to musical composers.  For his own part, almost all music played in the present day appeared to him to be transposed, owing to the height of the pitch.

Proposed Amendment

Sir John Herschell said he had no right to attend there as a musician, but he attended in the interest of general science, and it was his desire that some general and correct principle, easy of application to this subject, should be recognised, which he thought would place them in a position superior to their French neighbours, under compulsory legislation.  It the point to be settled consisted of the number of vibrations, he felt inclined to move as an amendment, that the number of 512 [A430] vibrations for C be adopted.  If it was not competent for him to move that amendment, he would suggest a modification of the resolution now before them to this extent, that, whatever the number of vibrations might now be adopted, it should be only provisionally, so as to leave the question open for re-consideration at some future period.  He had the greatest respect for the care and attention which the committee had evidently bestowed, looking at the various and manifold considerations they had to deal with. No doubt there were extensive pecuniary interests involved in the question, in as much as instruments now in existence would be rendered unserviceable by a sudden change to the whole extent of lowering the pitch to 512 [A430], and therefore he presumed the medium figure of 528 [A440] had been recommended.  In course of time the present instruments would disappear.  The instruments henceforth made would be lowered, and at no distant period it would not be a matter of great inconvenience to come down to 512 [A430].  He therefore urged that, whatever number of vibrations might be decided upon today, the decision should be provisional, with a view to the final adoption of the standard of 512 [A430] as the natural and simple pitch.  If it was competent for him to do so, he would move an amendment to the effect:-

“That whatever number of vibrations higher than 512 [A430] be adopted for C by this meeting, its adoption shall be considered provisional, and that the subject ought to be reconsidered after a lapse of, say, twenty years, with a view to the final adoption of a pitch of 512 [A430], which is that ultimately to be arrived at.”

Proposition Seconded

Mr. F. Davison begged to second the resolution proposed by Mr. Cipriani Potter, approving 528 [A440] as the number of vibrations for C.  The reason why that number had been recommended, in preference to 512 [A430], was that it was only a quarter of a note below to present pitch, and the existing orchestral instruments would not be rendered useless by it.  That was an important consideration, which must not be lost sight of, and he thought this was the only pitch which was likely to be adopted at the present time.  That was the main reason why it had been proposed.  It was taking as the basis 33 vibrations for lower C, instead of 32, which was the basis of the 512 [A430] pitch.  It was a little higher than the new French pitch, and was one which in his opinion had every chance of being adopted by the orchestras.

Proposed Amendment Seconded

Mr. H F Chorley seconded the amendments proposed by Sir John Herschell.


Mr. C L Gruneisen said if in the original resolution the words “for the present” were inserted, he thought it would meet with general support.  He made this suggestion with a view to obtaining unanimity in the meeting.

Mr John Hullar said that perhaps the addition suggested would tend to promote unanimity, but at the same time he thought it would neutralise the whole object of a year’s work on the part of the Committee.  He believed that everybody, without exception, was desirous to lower the pitch; but there was one subject in particular upon which there was not the slightest difference of opinion – that was, that some pitch or other (no matter what it was) should be settled; and he took it that the whole object of the best pitch that could possibly be imagined – but to find out a pitch which would meet the various difficulties of the case, and so to settle the question.  The Committee had had them before them the makers of musical instruments, particularly pianoforte makers, who had been asked if they desired the raising or lowering of the pitch of their instruments, to which they replied that they had no preference at all; all they wanted was that the pitch should be decided, and they would make their instruments to it.  The organ-builders, too, had no very strong opinion upon this or that pitch; all they desired was that the pitch should be fixed, and they were the more anxious upon the subject because their instruments were the most costly and difficult to change. If the meeting left the question open, to be re-considered at a future time, they would very much weaken the force of what they did and they would appear before the public as an undecided body. It was perfectly competent for any set of persons at some future time to undo the work and build it up again.

After great consideration, and having collected a vast deal of information, the Committee had decided upon making this recommendation; and it would be stultifying themselves to come to a resolution leaving the matter as open and as uncertain as it was before they entered upon the work. At the present time, instruments were waiting to be finished until a decision was come to upon this point; but if they carried a resolution affirming that a certain pitch was a good one, but that they expected it would be changed hereafter, the matter would remain in statu quo, and the labours of the Committee would be thrown away. It was pretty well known that last year he (Mr Hullah) had appeared as an advocate for a particular pitch, and he had previously brought out a tuning-fork in accordance with those views; but, as he stated at the first meeting, his anxiety was to get some pitch fixed upon no matter what it was. He repeated that desire at the present time, and what the majority approved, he would most cordially adopt. It was with the greatest respect and deference that he differed from the mover of the amendment, for if that were carried it would be utterly fatal to the whole of their proceedings.

Mr. Chester remarked that it was very desirable that the two parties, who in reality differed to no great extent, should, if possible, be brought together, and he thought words might be inserted in the resolution to meet the views of Sir John Herschell and those who thought with him. He felt with Mr. Hullah the difficulty there was in putting forth anything of a provisional nature. If the trumpet gave an uncertain sound, no one could prepare himself to obey the call, and he thought a resolution of a provisional character would command very little respect.  The question would be almost as unsettled as it was before the appointment of this committee, and as much suspense and hesitation would prevail as heretofore.  He thought words might be added to the resolution which would admit of the excellence of the theory of 512 [A430], at the same time that it accepted practically the 528 [A440].  He gathered that the meeting was in favour of 512 [A430] as a theory, but that to come immediately to that result was beset with so many difficulties, that 528 [A440] was the standard which was most likely to obtain general acceptance. He begged to suggest whether they could not say something to this effect, that, looking at the practical difficulties attendant upon lowering the pitch below 528 [A440], it be recommended for present future time. If it were now fixed at 528 [A440], there might hence.  If the resolutions were to have any practical effect, they must bear, upon the face of them, the appearance of being precise, definite, and final.

Sir John Herschell remarked that 512 [A430] was the desirable pitch to come to, but he saw nothing to prevent them from dividing that step into two, which everyone in the abstract must consider it desirable to take. It might be too much to take the step altogether. From all he had heard it was the general opinion that it would be too great a fall in the pitch for them to make at once.  It was with that view he had proposed that the matter be reconsidered, say twenty years hence. By dividing the step as he had suggested, they left the matter open for future consideration, and did not annihilate the hope of ultimately coming to the right standard of 512 [A430].  If the resolution were to go forth as final, he thought it would be much to be regretted.

Amendment Rejected

The Chairman then put the amendment, which was negatived.

Further Amendment to include: "for the present"

Mr. Gruneisen then moved, by way of amendment, that the words “for the present” be inserted in the original resolution.


This was seconded by the Rev. E. Cox.

Again lost

The amendment having been put and lost,

Amendment to recognise superiority of 512 [A430], while proposing 528 [A440]

Mr. C. Wentworth Dilke said it was obvious that 512 [A430] was the proper mathematical number. That was admitted on both sides. Under these circumstances, he would suggest a resolution something to this effect that although no doubt 512 [A430] was the more correct number, yet, looking at all the practical difficulties surrounding the question, this meeting recommends that the number of vibrations adopted be 528 [A440]. That would be a positive announcement that 528 [A440] was adopted by this meeting, at the same time that it recognized that 512 [A430] was the proper number to be hereafter aimed at. He held that to put forth a resolution which was not positive would be doing no good. He would propose the following amendment:-

“That although this meeting is of opinion that the pitch of 512 [A430] vibrations for C is the more correct standard, yet, looking to all the practical difficulties that surround the question, it recommends that the number of vibrations to be adopted in this country shall be 528 [A440].”


Mr. Henry Leslie had great pleasure in seconding that amendment, because it represented that though practical experience showed that 528 [A440] could be adopted, they might ultimately hope for a still further reduction.

Request to modify original motion

Mr. Davidson would ask the permission of the mover of the original resolution to modify as it follows:- “That looking to the practical difficulties attendant upon a lower pitch than 528 [A440] vibrations, this meeting recommends that pitch for general adoption.”


Mr. C. Potter could not consent to this modification.


Sir John Herschell said, earnestly wishing that the number of 512 [A430] should be recognised in some authoritative manner, but, finding this hopeless, his next object was to leave the door open for ultimately arriving at that number. That might to a certain extent be done if the words “under existing circumstances” were introduced into the resolution; because, he thought, that in time the circumstances would change, and if the pitch were lowered, as proposed, it would be easy to introduce the final change afterwards.

Mr. Hullah had the less hesitation in urging the original resolution, seeing that it amounted only to a recommendation and not to the passing of a law. If that meeting were a parliament, and could force the country to adopt this view, the case would be different. After all, they merely passed a resolution; and to go before the world with a resolution upon which they were unresolved, would stultify their proceedings entirely.

Mr. Blagrove remarked that anything which left the matter in uncertainty would weaken the force of their proceedings. The reasons for recommending 528 [A440] as the standard were fully detailed in the report, which could always be referred to.

The Rev. W. Cazalet did not understand why 512 [A430] should be taken as more mathematically correct than 528 [A440]. It was a practical and not a theoretical question which they had to deal with. He should object to a resolution which avowed that 512 [A430] was a more correct number than 528 [A440]. It would open up the whole question afresh.

Mr. Chester remarked that the resolution would have no practical value unless it obtained acceptance out of doors; and that system would be accepted which was the simplest and offered the fewest points of difficulty. Looking to the probabilities of general acceptance out of doors, he thought 528 [A440] would meet with the largest amount of support.  He was only in favour of the amendment upon the ground that it might be a means of obtaining unanimity, otherwise he should be inclined to fall back upon the original resolution.

The amendment put and lost; the substantive motion carried

The Chairman then put the amendment proposed by Mr. Dilke, which was negatived, and the original motion of Mr. Cipriani Potter, having been put to the meeting, was carried by a large majority.

[“That the pitch of 528 [A440] vibrations for C be recommended for universal adoption in this country.”]

A Fork!

The Rev. Dr. Whewell had great pleasure in proposing the following resolution, as one calculated to promote the object for which they had been called together:- 

“That, in order to promote the acceptance of this pitch, and with the view to its general adoption in this country, the Society of Arts be requested to undertake the preparation of a standard tuning fork.”

This was seconded by Mr. Henry Blagrove, and unanimously passed.

Spread the word 

Mr. Hullah moved:-

“That a communication be made to the directors of orchestras, military bands, musical instrument makers, and others interested in music, calling their attention to the foregoing resolutions, and specially requesting their co-operation in carrying them out.”

Mr. Nicholson seconded the resolution, which was supported by Mr. Griesbach, and carried unanimously.

Meeting ends 

The meeting concluded by passing a cordial vote of thanks to the chairman.


Special thank you to the Archives section of the RSA for making the article available.

And so what happened then?

We'll make that the subject of a separate page ...

On to Part IV - The Outcome or

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