Society of Arts Pitch

 Part II - Report of the Committee

The General Meeting of Musicians, Amateurs, and others interested in Music, called together by the Society of Arts to consider the present state of Musical Pitch in England, found, after a little inquiry, that their attention would have to be directed to three principal points:-

  1. Whether a uniform musical pitch was desirable.

  2. Whether a uniform musical pitch was possible.

  3. Supposing a uniform pitch to be desirable and possible, what that pitch should be.

Is a uniform musical pitch possible?

1.         With the first of these considerations the General Meeting were not long occupied, all testimony going to prove the frequent inconvenience* to which musical performers vocal and instrumental, musical instrument makers, musical directors, and even instructed hearers, were alike put by variation in the pitch, whether of individual instruments or of entire orchestras.  The Meeting came early to a unanimous resolution that a uniform pitch was desirable.

(*One instance of this will suffice.  An eminent performer acting on previous experience, provided himself for a recent musical tour with no less than thirteen concertinas, tuned to different pitches varying to the extent of about a tone and a half.)

Is a uniform musical pitch possible?

2.         The second question, “Whether a uniform pitch was possible,” was not found to admit of so ready an answer as the first.  That a uniform pitch is never for any length of time maintained is well known to all practical musicians.  The effects of temperature on musical instruments are so great and so rapid, that a difference in pitch between the beginning and the end of the same concert; and instruments not required at the beginning of a performance are frequently tuned to a higher pitch, in order to meet this anticipated elevation.  In theatres, instruments to be used on the stage are systematically tuned sharper than those to be used in the orchestra, to compensate for the difference of temperature before and behind the scenes. (This inconvenience might be much lessened, if not got rid of altogether, by improved ventilation of places of public assembly.)

Still, though the maintenance of a certain pitch may be difficult, or even impossible, the definition of it is not.  A point of departure, if nothing more, would be in the highest degree convenient to musicians.  No great practical inconvenience has ever been found to result from any chance of pitch possible during a single performance.  It is against the gradual elevation, consequent on the absence of any recognised standard, that musical practice required a security.  Physical science is, happily, enabled to afford this, and to bring to the aid of musical art more than one process by which such a standard may be adjusted. 

Measuring pitch

Musical pitch is not a matter of mere comparison.  A sound is not merely acute or grave, in relation to another; its pitch is capable of exact measurement, and that measurement once recorded, it may be reproduced at any distance of time, without reference to any other sound whatever.  In short, the number of vibrations per second due to a given sound can be ascertained with the same certainty as the number of square yards on a given estate, or the number of tons burthen of a given merchantman.

Several methods of counting vibrations have been adopted by men of science at different periods, by one or other of which the pitch of certain notes (generally either C or A) in this or that musical establishment has been recorded; so that a body of evidence exists, in addition to, and independent of, that of tuning-forks, bells, and other instruments least susceptible of change, by which the variations of pitch, at different times and in many different places, may be ascertained with certainty.

Under these circumstances the Meeting came to a resolution that a uniform pitch was not only desirable but possible.  It remained for them to consider “what that pitch should be”.

What should that pitch be?

3.         On this question such very wide difference of opinion was expressed, and, indeed, such very conflicting evidence was adduced, that the Meeting, as a prelude to further operations, though it advisable to devolve on a Committee the task of ascertaining the grounds of these opinions, and of investigating this evidence.

Several meetings of the Committee have been held, in the course of which much valuable information has been collected, and many valuable opinions have been weighed.

The Committee are now in a condition to report.

Their inquiries and considerations have been brought to bear on the following points:-

1.      The pitch, or varieties of pitch, obtaining at foregoing periods of musical history.

2.      The pitch, or varieties of pitch, obtaining in the most eminent and important English orchestras at this time.

3.      Pitch, in its relations (1st) to voices, (2nd) to artificial instruments.

4.      The difficulties likely to impede a change of the existing pitch, were any change thought desirable.

5.      What pitch it is advisable to recommend for general adoption.

History of Musical Pitch

1.         With regard to the pitch in the early days of modern music, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some uncertainty prevails; indeed, not only would it seem to have been liable to all those temporary and slight variations inevitable perhaps at any time, but the evidence of musical composition would suggest the simultaneous existence of more than one pitch, and that of these the “church pitch” was, contrary to more recent experience, the highest. 

(“Not the least interesting proof of the former existence of a high church pitch, is to be found in the fact that Sebastian Bach, in his Church Cantatas, in most cases, wrote the organ part a note lower than the other parts”  The Organ, its History, and Construction; by Edward J. Hopkins and Edward F. Rimbault, London, 1855, par. 740.) 

Of the pitch, or rather of a pitch common in orchestras in the first half of the last century, evidence is somewhat more reliable.  Several tuning-forks, of the authenticity of which there is no reason to doubt, exist, and many musical instruments have been preserved which would go to prove that the opera pitch in England in the time of Handel (1720-59), was about a tone lower than that at present in vogue.  No scientific record of this fact has come before the Committee, but the presumptive evidence in its favour is strong.

(The pitch of the organ in Trinity College, Cambridge, about the year 1755, was ascertained by Dr. Smith, then Master.  It gave a still smaller number of vibrations than Handel’s fork, viz., 388.8 for A, and 405.1 for C.  The pitch of a single organ, never perhaps used in combination with other instruments, would, however, be no evidence of the pitch elsewhere.).

Pitch in the early 19th Century

On the state of the pitch during the first half of the present century, a body of evidence exists which is absolutely irrefragable. Whether during the second half of the last century the pitch rose gradually, or whether a sudden deviation took place on the introduction to this country of the first great works of the modern symphonic school (c. 1790), is uncertain, and perhaps unimportant. 

(About this time, ie shortly after the foundation of the Conservatoire de Musique (in 1795), the French “diapason d’orchestre” was suddenly raised a semitone above the “diapason d’opera,” no change being made in the latter for a long time after.). 

But it has been ascertained, that from the year 1813 to the year 1841 or 1842, a tuning-fork, of which numerous duplicates have been preserved, was authorised by the Directors of the Philharmonic Society, the pitch* of which is about a semitone higher than that of the tuning-fork said to be Handel’s, and about a semitone lower than the pitch now obtaining in that same Philharmonic Society.  This Philharmonic fork of 1813-42, gives 433 vibrations per second for the note A, equal to 518.4 for the note C.

(This pitch was settled by Sir George Smart, in conjunction with Messrs. Braham, Naldi, and Griesbach, and Mrs. Billington.  In a letter to a member of the committee (dated Feb 6th, 1860), Sir George Smart says – “I have conducted forty-nine Philharmonic Concerts, the first in 1816, the last in 1844, and during a great part of that time this pitch was adhered to.”)

Pitch by 1860 

2.         Various observations (made principally during the last season at the Italian Opera, at the Philharmonic, and other orchestral concerts) have established the fact that, at the present time, the pitch has reached an average of 455 vibrations per second for A, equal to 546 for C.  [ie High Pitch.] So that the C and A of 1859 are identical with the D flat and B flat of 1840, the pitch having risen, in less than twenty years, a semitone.

Why so high? 

This extraordinary result has been brought about by a variety of causes.  The advert of certain foreign vocalists, gifted with voices of exceptionally high register, may have been one; an opinion entertained by many instrumental performers, that increased “Brilliancy” of timbre is attained by increased elevation of pitch, may have been another; but, perhaps, the present high pitch is due less to these and like causes than to the simple fact that it is always possible to raise, and often impossible to lower, the pitch of an instrument, and, therefore, that, if one important instrument (eg oboe or clarionet) in an orchestra is found to be higher than all the other instruments, accordance is rarely attained by lowering it, but almost always by raising them.  With an existing cause like this always in operation, and no authoritative standard to which reference could from time to time be made, the wonder is that the pitch has not risen more, rather than that it has risen so much.  Nor is it unreasonable to anticipate still further elevation, unless some such standard can be agreed upon by reference to which this upward tendency may be kept in check.

The Voice as the determining factor

3.         Before entering on the consideration of “pitch in its relations to voices and artificial instruments,” the subcommittee thought it advisable to try and agree upon some principle by which they might be governed in their choice of a particular pitch, supposing any discrepancy in the interests of vocal and instrumental music to appear.

Nothing is more certain than that while artificial instruments admit of, and receive, continual modification and improvement, the powers of the human voice have now been thoroughly ascertained.  There is not the slightest evidence to justify the belief that the average Soprano of our own times differs, or that the average Tenor of the 20th century will differ, from the average Soprano or Tenor of the 18th century. 

While, therefore, among other qualities, the pitch of artificial instruments admits of alterations to almost any extent, the pitch of the voice, like the voice itself, admit of no alteration, but at the will and by the hands of Him who made it.  If voices and instruments are to maintain – as to the delight of all human kind they have remained so long – allies, their pitch must be identical; and if any pitch is possible to instruments, and only one pitch possible to, or rather fit for, voices, the pitch of instruments must be that of voices.

At one of their first meetings the Committee passed unanimously the following resolution:- 

“That, as the basis of any recommendation of a definite pitch the capabilities and convenience of the human voice in singing the compositions of the great vocal writers should be the first consideration.”

Effect of high pitch on voice

Some impediments stand in the way of ascertaining directly the effects of the present high pitch on the quality and probable duration of the voice.  A remonstrance in respect of it on the part of a singer might be too readily interpreted into a confession of weakness; and a premature decay of physical power might be imputed to an artist who remonstrated against the gratuitous exertion which an extravagantly high pitch obliges him to undergo.

Such evidence, however, as the Committee has been able to collect directly is, without exception, to the effect that the present pitch taxes unfairly, if it does not seriously impair, the powers of the most gifted and skilful artists; while the evidence of several directors of choral societies goes to prove that, not only is the quality of sound produced by large bodies of voices seriously depreciated by the high pitch, but that false intonation is an increasingly frequent result of it.  Certain it is that entire movements are now frequently transposed, because it is found impossible, by artists whose powers are acknowledged to be their zenith, to execute them as they were written, at the present pitch; and choral practices are not infrequently made in keys lower than those in which the music so practiced will have to be performed.  The depreciation in effect and inconvenience caused by transposition in these cases requires no comment.

Effect of high pitch on Instruments

The inquiries of the Committee as to the effect of the present high pitch on musical instruments have had reference to organs, pianofortes, the stringed instruments, which form the basis of the orchestra, and the wind instruments of wood and of brass.


No strong opinion appears to prevail among organ builders, or pianoforte makers, in respect to the advantages of any particular pitch.  They are, without exception, desirous that some uniform pitch should be established, but it has not been asserted that an organ or a pianoforte gains or loses by a higher or lower pitch.


With respect to stringed instruments, the Committee have ascertained that there is a decided feeling, especially among violinists, in favour of a high pitch, as contributing to increased “brilliancy” in the timbre of their instruments.  This feeling, expressed as it has been by artists of great experience and acknowledged skill and taste, is entitled to much respect and grave consideration.  On the other hand, however, it is contended that elevation of the pitch of a violin or cognate instrument, is necessarily attained either by the use of thinner strings, or by tension so increased as to necessitate, sooner or alter, the strengthening of the instrument, by processes which of necessity decrease its volume and, as it would seem, its power and richness in like proportion*.

(*Extract from a letter of Messrs. Withers and Co., dated January, 1960:-“Having regard to those instruments with which we are especially conversant, viz., violins, violoncellos, and double basses, we are of opinion, that a pitch somewhat lower than the present would be favourable to those instruments.  They would be more free to vibrate, and the tone would be of a better quality.”).


The Committee have not found many advocates for high pitch among performers on, or makers of, wind instruments.  To some of the former a lower pitch than the present would be acceptable.  The higher notes of the trumpet and horn have become, as the pitch has risen, more and more difficult of access; the rise, however, seems to have been easily met by the other wind instruments, whether wood or brass.  It has not been contended that any advantage in the power or quality of wind instruments results from high pitch; on the contrary, a strong opinion has been expressed by an eminent manufacturer* that wind instruments would be greatly improved in these respects were their pitch lowered a semitone.

(*Extract from a letter of Messrs. Rudall, Rose, Carte and Co., dated Jan. 11, 1860:-“We have no hesitation in stating it as our full belief, that the tone of the brass, as well as the wood instruments, would be greatly improved by the adoption of a pitch as low as that of the French, or even that of 512 vibrations for C.”)

Difficulty of changing the current pitch.

4.         On the practical difficulties attending any change of pitch, the Committee find opinions unanimous.  The violins, violas, violoncellos, and double-basses, now in use in orchestras, though many of them old instruments, have gradually been habituated, so to speak, to the present pitch, and would, it is said, suffer greatly from, and required alteration to meet, any considerable change.  The wooden wind instruments (flutes, oboes, clarionets, and bassoons), are mostly new, and have in every case replaced others of which the vantages were adjusted with a view to a lower pitch.  Similar inconvenience would occur in respect to the keyed brass instruments; but the other brass instruments would find a change easy.

What pitch would be best?

5.         What a pitch is it advisable to recommend for general adoption?

The case for C512 

It has been customary, in treating of acoustic science, to assume, as the simplest possible point of departure, the existence of a note corresponding to one vibration per second; the various octaves of which will be represented by 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 etc. This theoretical note is found to agree so nearly with the musician’s idea of the note C (the simplest fundamental note in a practical point of view), that writers on acoustics, it is believed, without exception, have agreed to consider them as identical, and have thus established what may be called a theoretical pitch, or definition of the note C.

[This pitch based on a multiple of 1 is sometimes also referred to as Philosophical or Natural pitch.]

Thus, the C produced by a 32ft. organ-pipe is assumed to be the result of 16 double vibrations (or 32 single ones) per second.  The octave above, or the lowest C of a grand pianoforte, or 32 double vibrations; the lowest C of a violoncello, of 64; tenor C, of 128; middle C of the pianoforte, of 256; and the C on the treble stave, of 512 double vibrations per second.

The divisions of a musical string, necessary to produce a major scale, are as follows:-

C          D          E           F          G          A          B          C
1        8/9      4/5       3/4      2/3       3/5      8/15     1/2 

The number of vibrations due to each sound (being in inverse ratio to the divisions of the string) at the pitch alluded to, will therefore be as follows:-

  C         D         E          F           G           A           B          C
256     286     320     341.5      384      426.7     480      512

In the year 1842, at the suggestion of a member of the Committee, a tuning-fork, regulated to the above pitch by means of an instrument called the sirene (the invention of a French mathematician, Cagniard de la Tour) was made and published.  Duplicates of this tuning-fork have been circulated to a very large extent; it has served, for years past, as the standard for many choral societies, and been adopted by pianoforte tuners for instruments not intended for public performance; several large and important organs also have been adjusted to it.*

(*The difficulties connected with the manipulation of the sirene, must always expose results obtained from it to suspicion.  The tuning-fork alluded to above, on being tested by the process adopted by Mr. Henry Griesbach, has been found to be the result of 521 vibrations per second – almost identical with the French Normal Diapason.  It must be borne in mind, however, that nine vibrations, in respect to the C on the treble stave, do not represent more than a quarter of a semitone.).

It is certain, however, that the simplicity of the figures which by the octaves to C, and the scale, are represented at this pitch would be a very insufficient recommendation of the pitch itself to musicians, were its adoption found to be practically injurious to musical effect.  That this has not been found to be the case two very remarkable facts will serve to show.

1st.  The commission recently appointed to report on the pitch in France, who appear to have been governed by considerations of a purely practical kind (their report ignoring mathematical convenience entirely), have decided on a pitch, certainly not identical with the pitch of 512 vibrations per second.

The following are the numbers of vibrations of each note of the scale of C, according to the French normal diapason:-

  C          D          E           F            G           A          B         C
261    298.6    326.25     348      391.5     435     489.4   522

It is needless to say that the difference between this (French) pitch and that of C 512 is practically not greater than that frequently produced on the same instrument by a few minutes’ change of temperature.

[The difference is 33 cents, ie one third of a semitone.]

2nd.  On testing the A tuning forks, said, on irrefragable evidence, to represent the Philharmonic pitch of 1812-42, they are found to be the result of 433 vibrations per second = C at 518.4; still nearer than the French to the pitch of C512.

(A satisfactory proof of the certainty of two known processes of measuring vibrations has been afforded in the results obtained from duplicates of this fork.  The same number of vibrations having been obtained by Mons. Lissajous, in Paris and (on a method altogether unlike), by a member of the subcommittee, Mr. Henry Griesbach, in London.)

This result again is strongly in favour of the latter pitch; seeing that, like the French, the Philharmonic pitch was avowedly decided upon without reference to any mathematical or scientific test whatever.  A few eminent practical musician consulted together, and came to agreement among themselves that a certain pitch was a convenient mean, neither too high for voices nor too low for instruments, and for thirty years their decision was never impugned.

The authority, therefore, of practise as of theory – of art as of science – belongs alike to the pitch of C512; seeing that a pitch closely approximately has been adopted at different periods by many different persons having no concert or communication with one another, and having been led to its adoption by very unlike processes and objects.

On grounds of abstract propriety, therefore, the sub-committee would willingly have recommended the pitch of C512 for general adoption.  They are, however, withheld from doing so by certain practical considerations, which it is impossible for them to ignore.  These, to which some allusion has been made already, it now becomes necessary to enter upon more fully.  

Impracticality of C512

It is certain that a change from the present pitch of C546 to C512  – a change of about a semitone  – could not be made without great inconvenience and pecuniary loss to the body with whom the adjustments of the pitch practically rests – our orchestral performers.  Such a change, too, would fall heavily on musical instrument makers, probably to the extent, in many cases, of rendering the greater portion of their existing stock valueless.  This objection, it is thought by some even of those who are most anxious for a great depression of the present pitch, would be fatal to any proposition which did not in some way meet it.  Information has reached the sub-committee that considerable difficulties are found in enforcing the new musical diapason in France, and that authority such as would never be sought for, or obtained, in this country, has found a powerful antagonism in “the inexorable logic of facts”.  Why, it has been asked, should we not profit by this experience, and abandoning the chase after that which others, with more advantages than ourselves, have as yet found unattainable, turn our attention to that which would seem to be within our reach?

For, it is believed, though so great a chance of pitch as that involved in the descent from C546 to C512 would experience an amount of opposition which there is no means of overcoming, a change smaller in amount, while it would afford considerable relief to the vocal performer, would be not unacceptable to the instrumental, since it could be carried into effect without appreciable injury to, certainly without the destruction of, his instrument.

A practical compromise

It is well known, that neither by the committee called together by the Society of Arts, nor by the Commission appointed by the French government, has the attempt to deal with the now intolerable evil of an extravagantly high pitch, been made for the first time.  Among other attempts, that of a Congress of Musicians at Stuttgart in 1834, has attracted the most attention.  This body recommended a pitch of 528 for C, = 440 for A , basing their calculation on 33 vibrations per second instead of 32.  The following would be the scale at this pitch – the only one yet proposed which gives all the sounds in whole numbers:

  C           D         E          F           G        A          B          C
264       297      330      352      396     440      495      528

This pitch, of which the C is 16 vibrations per second higher than that of C512, and 18 vibrations lower than the C at the present pitch (of 546), is as near as possible half-way between the two latter, and, therefore, a quarter of a tone above the one and a quarter of a tone below the other.

To lower the stringed instruments to this pitch would obviously be attended with little difficulty.  Depression to the extent of a quarter of a tone is said to be easy with the brass instruments and possible with the wooden wind instruments – the flutes, oboes, clarionets, and bassoons – now in use. (Many of these were originally tuned somewhat lower, and have been raised in pitch by modifications which do not of necessity permanently affect them.  The standard adopted by one of the most eminent makers of instruments for military bands is somewhat lower than that proposed above.).  Few organs exist of higher pitch than the Stuttgart, and the raising of those which have been tuned to C512 would not be attended with serious difficulty.

The Stuttgart pitch, then, if not the very best that could be conceived, may be regarded as the one which, with many recommendations, would have the best chance of attaining the general assent of contemporary musicians.

Though higher than the pitch of 512, the [previous] Philharmonic pitch, or the diapason normal, the Stuttgart pitch is but a few vibrations higher than the two last of these – one of which experience has proved to be a good pitch for instrumental music.

It is a quarter of a tone below the present pitch, by general consent voted intolerably high. (About forty letters have been received in answer to a circular addressed to various directors of musical societies, vocal and instrumental performers, musical instrument makers and others, soliciting information and opinions respecting the objects of the sub-committee.  Of the writers of these, none advocate an elevation of the present pitch, three think no change called for, and twenty-nine recommended a depression of the present pitch to different amounts varying from ¼ to ¾ of a tone.  Of these twenty-nine eleven specify the pitch of C512.).

Its adoption would involve little, if any, inconvenience, or pecuniary loss to instrumental performers or makers of musical instruments.  It would, therefore, be likely to meet with the support of the majority of those interested in the question of pitch.

The Committee, in bringing their inquiries and discussions to a close, cannot but express an earnest hope that whatever recommendation of a pitch may be adopted by a General Meeting, it will be received by professors and amateurs of music in a spirit worthy of an attempt to deal with a question in which every musician must have a strong interest, and with that respect which must ever be due to a conclusion not arrived at without much patient labour and very serious consideration.

List of the several pitches referred to in the foregoing report:-

Handel’s Tuning Fork (c. 1740)

A at 416

 C at 499.2

Theoretical Pitch        

A at 426.7

C at 512

Philharmonic Society (1812 - 42)    

A at 433

C at 518.4

Diapason Normal (1859)  

A at 435

C at 522

Stuttgart Congress (1834)     

A at 440

C at 528

Italian Opera, London (1859)   

A at 455

C at 546

By Order of the Committee

P. LE NEVE FOSTER, Secretary

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