A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Pitch

PITCH. This word, in its general sense, refers to the position of any sound in the musical scale of acuteness and gravity, this being determined by the corresponding vibration-number, i.e. the number of double vibrations per second which will produce that sound. Thus when we speak of one sound being 'higher in pitch' than another, we mean that the vibrations producing the former are more rapid than those producing the latter, so giving what is recognised as a higher sound. The general nature of this relation may be studied in works on acoustics; it is sufficient here to state that, as a matter of practice, when the exact pitch of any musical sound has to be defined, this is most properly done by stating its vibration-number.

Standard of Pitch. It becomes, then, an important practical question for the musician, what is the exact pitch corresponding to the written notes he is accustomed to use? or, to put the question in a simpler form, what is the true vibration-number attached to any one given note, say, for example, treble C
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f c''2 }
; for if this is known, the true pitch of any other note can be calculated from it by well-known rules.

This opens the vexed question of what is called the 'Standard of Pitch.' According to reason and common sense there ought to be some agreement among the musicians of the world as to what musical note should be denoted by a certain musical sign; but unfortunately there is no such agreement, and the question is therefore still undetermined. It has been much debated,[1] but it must suffice here to state some of the more important facts that have been elicited in the discussion.

We have no positive data as to the pitch used in the earliest music of our present form, but we may arrive at some idea of it by inference. The two octaves of Pythagoras's Greek scale must have corresponded with the compass of male voices, and when Guido added the Gamma (G), one tone below the Proslambanomenos of the Greeks, we may fairly assume that it expressed the lowest note that could be comfortably taken by ordinary voices of the bass kind. This is a matter of physiology, and is known to be somewhere about 90 to 100 vibrations per second; according to which the treble C, two octaves and a fourth higher, would lie between 480 and 532.

At a later period some information of a more positive kind is obtained by organ pipes, respecting the dimensions of which evidence exists; and it is found that the pitch varied considerably, according to the nature of the music used, there being very different pitches for religious and secular purposes respectively. The inconvenience of this however seems to have been found out, and early in the 17th century an attempt was made to introduce a Mean Pitch which should reconcile the requirements of the church with those of the chamber. It was about a whole tone above the flattest, and a minor third below the highest pitch used. The effort to introduce this was successful, and the evidence shows that from this date for about two centuries, down to about the death of Beethoven, the pitch in use was tolerably uniform. Mr. Ellis gives a long list of examples taken at various dates over this period, varying for A, from 415 to 429, or for C from 498 to 515 vibrations. This is an extreme range of only about half a semitone, which, considering the imperfect nature of the means then practicable of obtaining identity and uniformity, is remarkably satisfactory. During this period lived and wrote all the greatest musicians we know, including Bach, Handel, Purcell, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, and partly Spohr, Mendelssohn, and Rossini. That is to say, the heroes of music, the founders and perfecters of modern musical art, all thought out their music and arranged it to be played and sung in this pitch. This is therefore emphatically the Classical Pitch of music. And singularly enough, it agrees with the presumptive determination we have made of the pitch that must have been used in the earliest times.

But, unhappily, this satisfactory state of things was disturbed by influences arising from modern progress. The orchestra began to assume greater importance as regards its wind element, new and improved wind instruments being introduced, and the use of them being much extended. This led to a constant desire for louder and more exciting effects, and both makers and users of wind instruments soon perceived that such effects might be enhanced by raising slightly the pitch of the sounds. The wind instruments were of course the standards in an orchestra, and so a gradual rise crept in, which both strings and voices were obliged to follow. The conductors, who ought in the interests of good music to have checked this, were either ignorant of, or indifferent to, the mischief that was being done, until at length it assumed alarming proportions. In 1878 the opera band at Covent Garden were playing at about A = 450 or C = 540, being a rise of a semitone above the 'classical pitch' used down to Beethoven's day.

Such a change was attended with many evils. It altered the character of the best compositions; it tended to spoil the performance and ruin the voices of the best singers; and it threw the musical world into confusion from the uncertainty as to the practical meaning of the symbols used; and all for no object whatever, as no one could affirm that the new pitch was on any ground better than the old one. Accordingly strong remonstrances were expressed from time to time, and efforts were made either to restore the original pitch, or at least to stop its further rise, and to obtain some general agreement for uniformity. In 1834 a 'Congress of Physicists' held at Stuttgart adopted a proposal by Scheibler to fix the A at 440 (true C = 528), but it does not appear that this had any practical result. In 1858 the French government appointed a commission, consisting partly of musicians[2] and partly of physicists, to consider the subject. The instructions stated that 'the constant and increasing elevation of the pitch presents inconveniences by which the musical art, composers, artists, and musical instrument makers all equally suffer, and the difference existing between the pitches of different countries, of different musical establishments, and of different manufacturing houses, is a source of embarrassment in musical combinations and of difficulties in commercial relations.' The Commission reported in Feb. 1859.[3] After substantiating the facts of the rise (which they attributed to the desire for increased sonority and brilliancy on the part of instrument-makers) and the great want of uniformity, they resolved to recommend a fixed standard: A = 435 (C true = 522; C by equal temperament = 517). This was confirmed by a legal decree, and it has been adopted in France generally, to the great advantage of all musical interests in that country.

Soon afterwards an attempt was made to do something in England. A committee was appointed by the Society of Arts, who reported in 1869, recommending the Stuttgart standard of C = 528; but the recommendation fell dead, and had no influence. Other agitations and discussions have taken place since, but all without effect, and the state of matters in this country in regard to the standard of pitch is as follows. The principal orchestras continue to play at the elevated pitch; but this is repudiated by the general consensus of vocal performers, and in all cases where an orchestra does not come into requisition, as in churches and at vocal concerts, a much lower pitch is used, corresponding nearly with either the French or the 'classical' one. Hence all idea of uniformity in the practical interpretation of music becomes out of the question;—a state of things most deplorable, and a disgrace to the musical education of the country.

It is an interesting consideration whether, as a matter of theory, a philosophical standard of pitch can be devised, based on natural facts, like the standards of measure, weight, and time. Such a standard is easily deducible. We may assume the existence of a note corresponding to the simplest possible rate of vibration, viz. one per second; and the various octaves of this note will be represented by 2, 4, 8, etc. vibrations, being a series of powers of the number 2. This theoretical note is found to agree so nearly with the musician's idea of the note C (the simplest or fundamental note in our modern musical system), that they may be assumed to correspond, and we thus get
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f c''2 }
= 512 double vibrations per second, which may be called the 'Philosophical Standard of Pitch,' and which is adopted, for theoretical purposes, in many books on music. And as it will be seen that this corresponds very fairly with the 'Classical Pitch' which was in vogue during the best periods of music, and differs very little from the authorised French pitch and the vocal pitch now followed in England, it would form a reasonably good standard in a practical as well as in a theoretical point of view.

[ W. P. ]

  1. The most thorough investigation of this subject will be found in two papers read before the Society of Arts. May 12, 1877. and March 3 1880. by Mr. A. J. Kills. F.R.S.
  2. The musicians were Auber, Halévy (who drew the Report), Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Rossini, and Thomas. The other members were Pelletier, Despretz, Doucet, Lissajous. Monnais, and Gen. Mellinet.
  3. Rapport et Arrêtés pour l'éteblissement en France d'un diapason musical uniforme. Paris, Imprimérie Impériale, 1859.