Pitch--A=440 or other pitch?

Thomas Dressler

New member
Colorful Mage made some interesting observations in another thread about pitch and temperament, and I'm going to pick up the subject of pitch in this thread.

Colorful Mage, from what you said I'm beginning to think that you might have perfect pitch--yes? I say this because your argument that pitching a piece below A=440 will sound flat to modern ears. This is not necessarily so, and I would say most people might notice a difference but not know how much difference there is or anything like that. These days, we generally accept "Baroque pitch" to be about 1/2 step below modern pitch. For 25 years I have played instruments pitched both ways, and while I do notice some differences, saying that Baroque pitch sounds FLAT is not one of them. But I don't have perfect pitch, or I may have gotten so used to it that it doesn't sound strange to me. I have sat at harpsichords tuned around a FOURTH flat, and there are historic reasons for this but I'm not sure there would have been in Bach's day. On that instrument, I couldn't even play my pieces because it confused me that the notes were "wrong." Perhaps I have some relative pitch. But I do think that if I had music meant to be played at that pitch and I spent time with it, it would become fine to me.

You have to remember that until the standard of A=440 came about, there were lots of different pitches. Historic organs were often tuned sharp. In the early 20th century in America, at least, they were often tuned flatter than A=440.

My own opinion on this is that we should always examine the pitch that was intended or assumed by the composer because, as I said in another post, this has a very strong effect on vocal technique. It also affects instruments, in that even if it does not affect technique, it does affect tone quality. There are many reasons to examine the original pitch, and while people sometimes argue against it, the argument that it will sound "flat" or "wrong" would only apply to people with perfect pitch.

There must have been people in the old days with perfect pitch, too, and I've wondered how they dealt with it. The explanation I can think of is that people were much more used to transposition, and they were also commonly used to using the different C clefs, which requires a certain kind of transposition in the mind. I believe they were probably less rigid in their way of thinking about notes than we are today. I believe our modern rigidity is sometimes a detriment. I think a lot of the time it arises not out of a well thought out decision, but out of limitations in developed abilities. And I can speak for myself on this, too, because while I do have experience playing the C clefs, and can do it, I often opt for the easy way if I can.

But for reasons of vocal technique, instrumental tone color, and color of the actual musical texture itself, I believe the original pitches should be tried out if possible.

Colorful Mage

New member
I do not exactly have perfect pitch, but I am close. I will often be able to hear a few random pitches and correctly identify them, but it is not 100%. I can, however, tell you if someone is singing sharp or flat without an outside reference point, and this same way I can identify if the pitches are not tuned to 440A. You seem to be able to relate to this.

Basically, either one of two is true: Most people can tell the difference between songs pitched to 440A and 414A; or, most people cannot tell the difference between the two.

If the first is true, and most people can indeed tell the difference between pitches relating to 440A and lower pitches, then we have become accustomed to 440A. If this is the case, then the music tuned how Bach would have originally written it would indeed sound flat to us, and thus would be an inaccurate representation of his art.

If the latter is true, and the majority of the people cannot tell the difference, then why bother putting it in it's original pitch? If it will not change the meaning or communication behind the piece in most peoples' eyes, then what is the point in making it "historically accurate?" Music is communication, and if we listen to the music in a way that the original composer's composition most retains its communicative value, then what good is historical accuracy?

-Colorful Mage

(By the way, I am working on perfect pitch; I get a little closer every day. I am now able to pull many pitches out of my head. The first was 440A, coincidentally, and I can pull that and a few others out of my head. Someday, I will have all of the pitches associated with words.)

Thomas Dressler

New member
Very good questions, and a very good way of summing it up.

I would say, however, that it is more complex than you're making it. I would say that there are many subtle and some not so subtle ways that people would be at least subliminally aware of the difference--without using perfect pitch as an argument.

1. Very important--it affects singing technique in a very strong way. The placing of register breaks is of very high importance.

2. It also affects the tone quality of instruments and their technique. An easy example would be to ask a trumpet player about the differences between playing on a regular B-flat trumpet and a C trumpet.

3. In a more subtle way, it affect the relationships of intervals used in a piece of music, and therefore the sound quality of chords and sonorities. To simplify it, there is a distinct difference between the sound of a C major chord played in the middle octave of a piano and a C major chord played in the tenor octave. The lower chord sounds "muddier." The same is true of any interval. The characteristic of a middle C-G fifth is different from that of a tenor G-middle D fifth. The lower a given interval is, the closer together the sound vibrations are. To simplify what I'm saying, consider the interval of an octave. Let's consider the octave above and the octave below A=440. The A below that vibrates at 220, so the difference in the lower octave is 220 BPS. The octave above middle A vibrates at 880, so the difference in that octave is 440 BPS. While the pitch is the same, the quality is different--in a sense, the higher the interval, the further apart the pitches are in number of vibrations. This creates the muddier effect of intervals lower on the keyboard. What I'm saying is that there is a difference in sound quality when playing at "Baroque" pitch that can definately be heard, even if the listener cannot pin down the actually pitch difference.

These reasons are persuasive enough to make an important difference to me. On the other hand, I often play early music at modern pitch. Whenever I play Bach on the organ at church, I am playing at modern pitch. While I like it better at lower pitch because it sounds more sonorous to me, I can tolerate organ music at modern pitch, and I often have to. But then again, when I have to accompany arias from Messiah, for instance, I do everything I can to persuade the singers to sing at Baroque pitch because Handel was so aware of vocal technique that to my ears, hearing singers move through their registers at modern pitch is not attractive and does harm to the music.