I recently ran across a blog with a post on attending a concert. The blogger was sitting next to a conductor, and the conductor was explaining why the orchestra tunes to the oboe. According to that conductor it was because the oboe is the least able to be flexible with pitch. I find that so untrue, but another musician (a horn player) said that’s what she had always understood to be true. Weird.

We have to tune to a designated pitch, so we are supposed to make our reeds to play that pitch. In my case it’s an A-440. In some orchestras it’s higher (San Francisco Symphony includes this on their audition repertoire lists: “Please note, we tune to an A-441″). So even IF we are inflexible, we are supposed to play in tune! We can’t just say, “Sorry folks, it’s an A-445 today!”

But anyway, I was pleased to read that the principal oboist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra suggested a different reason.

Here’s an excerpt:

Tuning the orchestra

At the start of every orchestra rehearsal and every concert, the work onstage begins with tuning. When the concertmaster stands, it is the signal for the first oboe to give the “A” to which everyone tunes.

Orchestras tune to “A” because all the string instruments have an open “A” string. When that note is set, each string player tunes his or her other strings by fifths, or fourths for the string basses.

Principal oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida says it is the oboe that gives the “A” because her instrument’s tone “exudes the purest sound in the orchestra.”

“It is easy to hear and find the focus of the pitch, much more so than the flute or clarinet,” she says, because of overtone characteristics.

Making reeds is her “holy grail.”

“I spend a minimum of four hours a day working on reeds,” DeAlmeida says. “A little reed is tuned in itself and will play at 440 (vibrations per second).”

Some European orchestras tune a little higher. In the past, “A” usually was lower: 436 before World War II and, as musicologists hypothesize, 415 two centuries ago.

When she plays the “A,” she says, “I want it to be like a laser-beam sound people can count on when they adjust.”

She also uses a pitch machine when giving the “A” as reassurance for her colleagues, because tone color can affect perception of pitch. A bright timbre might seem higher in pitch than it is, for example.

During Lorin Maazel’s tenure as music director (1987-96), he tried additional tuning procedures — including having a “B flat” sound for the winds and brass as bands do, and checking the basses’ lowest string, an “E,” against the violins’ highest string, also an “E.” Performances under Maazel were lined up in pitch and ensemble to degrees unmatched since.

I’m a little confused by the “pitch machine” comment; it’s not like we have our tuners play the pitch out loud … is that what the writer was implying? I wonder.

And I really hate the idea of the B-flat tuning. Ugh.

But FOUR HOURS A DAY on reeds? This is why I could never handle one of those top orchestras! Her hands must be a mess. Wow.

You can read the entire article here. You might find it an interesting.

Two more shows. Today. 1:00/6:30. I have really enjoyed the show—I thought the production was extremely well done. But this is one I won’t be sorry to say goodbye to. The music isn’t exactly … um … fulfilling.

Then it’s full time on Barber for a while. Lots of sitting for that one. I’ll write about that later.


  1. The “pitch machine” comment sounds to me like she’s saying she turns on her tuner so that the folks around her can SEE that she’s in tune. Because a brighter sound will be perceived as sharper (and darker as flatter), the timbre of the note can affect the PERCEPTIONS of the listener. (Ever thought, “gee, that E-flat clarinet is sure sharp?” and then realized that it was flat?)

    Four hours a day? Holy cow!

  2. In addition to the “purity of sound”/least complex overtones for other musicians to tune to, there are historical reasons why oboists give the tuning A. It’s believed Gustav Vogt was the first oboist to provide the tuning A at the Paris Opera (early 19th century), and that tradition has continued. Perhaps it also had to do with the varying degrees of pitch from city to city and even orchestra to orchestra within the same city. It still varies today, but not to the same degree that it varied in the past.

  3. Patricia Mitchell

    I’m not sure she even cares that they SEE it … just that they know she has it on. I had a concertmaster shake his head at me as I gave an A once. I nodded my head back at the (annoying) man and held my tuner up high for all to see, including the audience. (Yes, he did this in front of an audience. As me if I was ticked off!?)

  4. Patricia Mitchell

    But … but … but … I thought it was because we are the CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE!!!

    That’t the real truth … isn’t it?